Is the next Jonestown or Waco tragedy primed to explode somewhere in America, led from behind bars by a pedophile-polygamist cult leader? That’s the loaded warning looming not-so-subtly beneath the surface in documentary Prophet’s Prey, a chilling deep dive exposé of convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs and his Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church).
First formed as an unsanctioned offshoot of the Mormon church, the polygamist FLDS sect reportedly has thousands of devotees and several remote compounds dotting the American West. The infamous Jeffs, now 59, is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years for two felony counts of child sexual abuse in which he impregnated a 15-year-old girl and assaulted another of his child brides who was only 12 years old at the time.
An audio recording of the violation of the 12-year-old, used as evidence during Jeffs’ 2011 trial, helped a jury swiftly convict him. It plays over a simple black screen in Prophet’s Prey, leaving viewers to fill in the horror of the scene in one of several skin-crawlingly effective moments that makes the latest from Oscar-nominated Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, West Of Memphis) one of the more disturbing films in recent memory.
But the victims named in that case represent just two of many heinous sex crimes Jeffs allegedly committed against children during his pre-incarceration reign as the self-appointed prophet of the FLDS flock.
The women of the FLDS, forbidden from wearing anything other than conservative prairie dresses, were already programmed from birth to obey the church and its men. The men, in turn, were encouraged to take a minimum of three spouses each, a practice that gave way to widespread marital rape and led to rampant underage pregnancy, particularly among Jeffs’ reported 70-plus wives.
Jeffs officially took control of the sect after jockeying to become successor to his father, FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs (and marrying all but two of his father's widows). Even before then, Warren Jeffs was violating young members of the church with impunity, according to the film.
A key witness in Jeffs’ trial was his own nephew, Brent Jeffs, who first appears in Prophet’s Prey explaining the blind obedience that is hammered into every FLDS member from birth so that no one is willing to question the authority of church leaders.
Later, Brent reveals that he was sexually abused by Warren Jeffs from the age of five in the basement of a former FLDS school. There, he says Warren kept an office overlooking the playground, using its god’s eye view of youngsters at play to pick victims he’d molest under the guise of monitoring dress code.
Adapted from Sam Brower’s 2011 book of the same name, Prophet’s Prey also extensively taps author Jon Krakauer (Everest) as an expert investigator, utilizing research he gathered for his 2003 bestseller Under The Banner Of Heaven. With Brower and Krakauer as her guides, Berg recaps the slow-building efforts of state and federal government forces to track and capture Jeffs, who went on the lam after making the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 2005 alongside high-value targets like Osama bin Laden.
Eyebrow-raising discoveries made by Berg following the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere link the FLDS to several mainstream industries and companies, including Reliance Electric, NewEra Manufacturing, and other holdings whose massive manufacturing profits have helped make the FLDS organization reportedly worth more than $100 million. (One conspiracy theory leap even suggests that an FLDS-owned aerospace manufacturer may have been responsible for the Challenger disaster.)
But it’s the personal experiences of ex-FLDS members, including Jeffs’ own siblings and relatives, which provide the most damning testimonies in Prophet’s Prey.
Former FLDS member and onetime Rulon confidante Ron Rohbock, who was excommunicated in 2003, reveals how he learned that his own daughter was raped by Jeffs, two years after it occurred. Most heart-wrenchingly, Rohbock relates how he rescued his daughter from the church only to watch helplessly as she was kidnapped back five days later and reportedly sent to an FLDS compound in Mexico.
He also shares his suspicions that Jeffs impregnated one of Rulon’s wives shortly before Rulon died in 2002. Jeffs’ own estranged brother Wallace Jeffs also shares that suspicion, and more. “The fact that [Warren] always felt that he could cover up everything he did wrong,” Wallace says, “he definitely would have taken Father’s life to cover that up.”
Janetta Jessop, who was 16 years old when her parents sacrificed her to become Jeffs’ 63rd wife, later made a Hail Mary call from a remote FLDS compound that led to her escape. Still visibly shocked by the ordeal, she sits for Berg and describes the trauma in plain terms: “It took away my entire life.”
These personal stories and more piece together a portrait of a megalomaniac opportunist who managed to gradually transform the FLDS sect into his own twisted fiefdom, in which the women and children of the church became his sexual property and the faithful were required to line his coffers with their life savings.
Those savings, along with profits tithed from business-owning FLDS members, have helped to pay for the construction of several FLDS compounds across America, including rural townships in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Texas where FLDS communities can essentially operate in seclusion away from the prying eyes and laws of the outside world.
After years on the lam, Jeffs was eventually and accidentally caught during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas, Nevada while traveling with one of his wives and her brother. State troopers discovered the fugitive cult leader in the backseat of an Escalade, calmly eating a salad. They also found several laptops, burner cell phones, disguises, and over $50,000 in cash.
During an ensuing legal circus that saw a Utah appeals judge overturn a 10-year conviction before he was sent away on separate charges by a Texas court, Jeffs consistently pled the fifth, when he wasn’t warning that God would take revenge on his oppressors. His eerily placid disembodied voice is heard via recordings, hypnotically issuing missives to his flock like, "Perfect obedience produces perfect faith." Adding to the mounting sense of unease and a palpably menacing score is surveillance camera footage of Jeffs’ erratic demeanor in prison, from where he’s believed to still be leading the FLDS.
Disturbing as Jeffs’ sex crimes are, those who have been tracking Jeffs’ activities the closest tell Berg that they fear he will next instigate an act of mass violence, although the film offers no evidence to suggest that FLDS leaders have hidden stockpiles of arms à la Waco or are plotting the next Jonestown.
The most pointed warning comes from author Krakauer, who’s one of six executive producers on Prophet’s Prey alongside Hollywood veterans Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Incarceration has, in many ways, only strengthened Jeffs’ hold over his hardcore followers and reinforced the notion that he’s being martyred for his faith, Krakauer argues. “I worry most of all that [Jeffs] is going to incite some bloodshed, intentionally or not intentionally,” the author cautions. “Intentionally, probably.”