In the decade since polygamist Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing underage girls he married, evidence suggests he maintains a grip on a diminished, but devout group of followers.
At the same time, attorneys for Jeffs have sought to lessen the impact of ongoing court actions against him, by arguing the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) has lost his own hold on reality. Nonetheless, Jeffs remains the group’s “prophet and president.”
“Warren didn’t just appear out of nowhere. An entire society created him,” said Elissa Wall, one of the FLDS child brides whose cooperation helped put Jeffs behind bars. She told her story in the A&E docuseries Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil.
A Legacy of Polygamy
Roughly a century ago, the FLDS broke away from the Mormon Church (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS) in a dispute over polygamy. Fundamentalists believed LDS founder Joseph Smith intended to create a society modeled on a literal interpretation of biblical events, in which figures such as Abraham had multiple wives.
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The LDS Church publicly denounced plural marriage in 1890 and eventually excommunicated followers who didn’t abide by those rules. More recently, they sought to further distance themselves from the polygamous FLDS via online video interviews, clarifying that the two groups were not related.
Over the last decade, FLDS membership has been estimated at between 6,000 and 10,000, though a realistic count is impossible to achieve because of the group’s insular nature. Many remain in a remote rural area known as Short Creek, a ranching community comprising the sister towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, where FLDS members began settling during the Great Depression.
Grooming Young Girls in the FLDS
Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil focused heavily on its subject’s rise to power and eventual grooming of young girls.
Jeffs became leader of the FLDS in 2002, following the death of his father, Rulon T. Jeffs, who took the title of “prophet” declined by his immediate predecessor.
Rulon Jeffs, known to followers as “Uncle Rulon,” had risen to the FLDS leadership position in the mid-1980s. When Warren was 18, his father named him principal of the Alta Academy, a school for FLDS children. The highly visible role was a chance for the teen to begin exerting control over the docile girls who would become his victims.
One of the messages Rulon and Warren introduced to their young followers was a phrase: “Keep Sweet.” Loosely interpreted, it was a directive to have a smile on your face. But for abuse victims, it had a potentially more sinister message: if they kept smiling, they wouldn’t have trouble from their abusers.
Rulon Jeffs had the phrase inscribed on the soles of his shoes. When Rulon died in 2002, Warren inherited his father’s pulpit. His father’s widows, rumored to number 20, became his wives. Warren began to wear the shoes, too.
By the time the group’s widespread abuse was exposed, Warren had 78 wives, many of them girls no more than 12 or 13 years old.
In the documentary, Rachel Jeffs, one of Warren’s oldest daughters, recalled sneaking away to read an entry her father had written in a journal: “He said, ‘The Lord wants me to take these wives at a young age to teach and train them and guide them through boy troubles.’ And then he wrote: ‘I will just be their boy trouble.'”
Jeffs on the Run
Over a period of decades, Jeffs controlled his constituency with threats of an impending apocalypse.
The first notable challenge to his authority came in 2003, when Rod Holm, a police officer in the community, was convicted of bigamy and two counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor—in this case, his third wife, Ruth Stubbs, whom he “married” when she was 16.
“As soon as Rod Holm got sentenced, I think Warren rightfully predicted: ‘If they can come after a polygamous cop because of a marriage I arranged, it’s only a matter of time before they come after me,'” Mike Watkiss, a longtime investigative reporter for Phoenix-based KTVK, said in the documentary.
Jeffs fled, he told his flock, so he could see the world’s “true evils” firsthand. That “research” took him to Disneyland, Florida’s beaches and Mardi Gras. The church used rented “safe homes” to move both church leaders and girls around the country.
In 2005, while Jeffs was on the run, Arizona authorities indicted him on felony charges of arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a married man, along with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. A year later, he was charged in Utah as an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage between then-14-year-old Elissa Wall and her cousin.
Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list in May 2006. He was captured three months later during a routine traffic stop outside Las Vegas. With him, police found a cache of cell phones, various wigs and disguises and $55,000 in cash.
There was turbulence within the FLDS for five years after Jeffs was captured: In 2008, hundreds of children—some of them also young mothers—were removed from the “Yearning for Zion” Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, during a police raid. Afterward, members likened the intrusion to religious persecution.
The Texas Supreme Court ultimately decided the children were removed from the ranch illegally—and they were returned. But materials seized during the raid provided the basis for the two assault cases that finally put Jeffs in prison.
Shortly after the top court’s ruling, he was indicted on bigamy and sexual assault charges by a Texas grand jury.
When the case went to trial in 2011, Jeffs represented himself. That August, he was convicted on two counts of felony sexual assault, and on August 9, 2011 received a life sentence plus 20 years.
Warren Jeffs Now
Jeffs is imprisoned at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Louis C. Powledge Unit, near Palestine, Texas. According to the TDCJ, Jeffs’ earliest parole eligibility date is July 22, 2038.
In 2017, a woman sued Jeffs and a community trust belonging to the FLDS for damages, alleging he had abused her when she was a child. Two years later, Jeffs’ lawyers declared him unfit to give a deposition in the case because he had suffered a “mental breakdown.”
Jeffs’ lawyer Zachary Shields said he didn’t want the woman’s attorneys to “waste time” traveling to interview his client until the man’s state of mind could be legally established. At the time this story was published, there have been no further reports on the matter, and Shields has not responded to a request for comment.
Jeffs’ mental state notwithstanding, his prison history is pocked with attempts to end his own life. He tried to hang himself in jail in 2007 in Utah, before his first conviction. He also fell ill during fasts in 2009 and 2011. To save his life in the latter instance, doctors put Jeffs into a medically induced coma.
In 2012, Jeffs published a book titled Jesus Christ Message to All Nations, in which he—self-identifying as “a mouthpiece for God”—warns the world how they’re treating him. “Let all beware how they treat my servant Warren Jeffs and my Priesthood and Church, for I shall bring full power to recompense to every person what they have chosen.”
According to the documentary, the FLDS has lost hundreds of members, and control of the Short Creek sister cities since Jeffs went to prison. Those who remain have been convinced by Jeffs that he sits in a cell to atone for their sins.
“We have evidence he continues to direct day-to-day operations of the church, including things like excommunicating individuals and directing what women should be placed with what caretakers,” Sean Keveney, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice told the Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil filmmakers.
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Prison officials have said they suspected Jeffs’ brothers used hidden recording devices, disguised as watches and pens, to capture their weekly meetings with him. They also said the leader wrote coded letters, which were picked up by wives who helped to decipher them.
Many of those closest to Jeffs have continued to expose the leader’s secrets, while also moving on with life outside of the FLDS. James Jeffs, one of Warren’s nephews, became a local star athlete after escaping the community. Several women, including both Wall and Rachel Jeffs, wrote books about their experiences in the compound.
Tragically, Warren’s son, Roy Jeffs, who was interviewed in the documentary, committed suicide in 2019.
Rachel Jeffs, at the time of Roy’s suicide, alleged her father was still in full control of the FLDS from prison.
More recently, there have been allegations that Jeffs was overseeing—again, from his cell—followers in South Dakota’s Black Hills, on a compound led by another brother, Seth.
Meanwhile, the question of polygamy and its legitimacy lives on in Utah. In May 2020, a new state law decriminalized polygamy in certain cases, making it an infraction similar to a traffic summons instead of a felony punishable by imprisonment.