Fleeing the FLDS: Followers are abandoning the notorious sect in droves

by March 16, 2015 5:00AM ET

Warren Jeffs’ polygamous sect crumbles in the face of a federal lawsuit and a mass exodus

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics
A cabin used as a safehouse where a support group meets for those who have fled Warren Jeffs’ sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in January 2015.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America
Brigham Johnson
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

This is the first of a two-part series on the FLDS. Read the second part here.

HILDALE, Utah — “I finally heard about this thing called Facebook, like, a year ago. I had no idea what it was,” says 22-year-old Brigham Johnson, rubbing his neat beard nervously.

He’s embarrassed it took him so long to stumble upon the social-media site. But when he finally did, it was life changing.

“I sneaked a look on a computer, even though that was forbidden, and I found some old friends who’d got out. I was, like, ‘Wow, they’ve been living here in town all this time.’ That’s when I knew I could leave,” he says.

So he packed a bag one midnight in May 2013 and told his brother he was leaving. Then he walked out on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the outlaw religion he was born into in a remote town on the Utah-Arizona border.

A secretive group who broke with Mormonism in order to practice polygamy, the FLDS became notorious for child abuse under its repressive leader, the pedophile “prophet” Warren Jeffs. Now serving life in state prison in Palestine, Texas, for aggravated sexual assault of minors, Jeffs continues to exert astonishing power over his flock from behind bars.

It was only in his late teens that Johnson began to have doubts about Jeffs and his teachings and researched him on an illicit phone with access to the Internet. When he learned that Jeffs had been convicted of raping girls as young as 12 during secret group-sex rituals in an FLDS temple, his gut wrenched. Johnson had helped to build that temple in the desert near the one-horse town of Eldorado when he was 14.

“Learning the truth hurt so bad,” he says.

Johnson knew others who had left, including his brother, but had no contact information for them — until he found Facebook.

Now, after two years of casual jobs in California, Kansas and Wyoming, he is a construction worker in Salt Lake City and sharing his story at a clandestine meeting in the remote settlement where he grew up. The 10 former church members in attendance have gathered on shabby sofas in a little community center in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. They straddle the state border and are often referred to by locals by the old settlement name of Short Creek or “the Crick.”

The sun sets over the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

Johnson’s audience is among hundreds of disillusioned followers who are believed to be abandoning Jeffs and the religion. Some have found new ways of getting out, such as connecting with others on the outside via social media. Others are seeking shelter in an expanding network of safe houses, where volunteers take the escapees into their homes in an echo of the historic Underground Railroad, which once helped slaves to flee. While the departures are weakening the religion from the inside, it is also under external pressure in the form of a federal lawsuit that is set to reach court this year, which some believe will deliver a lethal blow to the sect.

“Sites like Facebook and Snapchat have become the new highway for those leaving so they can reconnect with ex-members. It’s easier to leave now than when I ran away 10 years ago and had no idea where I was going,” says Elissa Wall, who fled after Jeffs forced her to marry her first cousin when she was 14. Now Wall helps others get out. Outsiders like her sometimes smuggle smartphones into the community to help people search the Internet.

There are no official statistics, but Sam Brower, a Utah-based private investigator who has worked on local and federal probes into the FLDS, says that more are leaving “than we have seen for many years.” He believes that 500 to 1,000 members have left in the last one to two years and about 10,000 remain, mostly in Short Creek, with others scattered in small groups elsewhere.

For the past two years, the Department of Justice has been conducting a civil-rights investigation into the Short Creek settlement, accusing the FLDS of running the town as a corrupt theocracy, enforced by a dishonest police department.

“It is my understanding that it will go to trial … in federal court in Prescott, Arizona. I think the feds have a strong case,” says Gary Engels, a retired investigator with the Mohave County District Attorney’s office who was instrumental in getting Warren Jeffs onto the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 2005.

A boarded up home in Colorado City, Ariz. When Jeffs was arrested, many of the town residents fled to other FLDS enclaves.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

Jeffs’ incarceration may have curbed the worst of the child abuse, but deep concerns linger about the sect. If the government wins the case it could lead to the church losing control of the town, where the mayors of both Hildale and Colorado City and members of their town councils are FLDS. In the federal lawsuit, even the local utility companies and the police department, known as the marshal’s office, are accused of answering to the church and discriminating against ex-FLDS and nonbelievers. With a government victory, local county authorities would assume municipal and law-enforcement duties and the FLDS-controlled towns would face heavy fines.

Blake Hamilton is a Salt Lake City lawyer defending Hildale and the utility companies against the DOJ lawsuit. “This case needs to be about whether the activities of law enforcement, etc., are equitable or discriminatory,” he says. “It does not need to be about Warren Jeffs or the FLDS church and their religious practices ... Even if it’s not a popular religion, we have First Amendment protections and people would agree they would not want to be singled out for their religion.”

The FLDS did not respond to a written request for comment sent to Lyle Jeffs.

Brower welcomes the DOJ action. He has long been frustrated that elected officials, despite their tough talk, have not done more to clean out Short Creek, which he calls “the most lawless town in America.” Child abuse and polygamy have long thrived here, the church is accused of encouraging welfare fraud and tax evasion by authorities in Utah and Arizona, and some members use child labor in their businesses, all with minimal interference from the authorities.

In 2008, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said that polygamist groups like the FLDS operate as “a form of organized crime” largely untouched by law enforcement. He accused them of using religion to conceal bigamy, child abuse, statutory rape, welfare fraud, tax evasion and “massive corruption,” as well as “strong-arm tactics” to control their people. But Reid’s effort to create a federal task force to crack down on the violations failed, and the current DOJ lawsuit does not address these issues directly. Still, if successful, it could effectively cripple the church’s control of the community.

The FLDS is also being investigated by the Department of Labor in an attempt to root out the allegedly widespread use of child labor.

A walled compound where adherents of the FLDS church continue to live.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America
Women wearing church-mandated traditional dresses walk in the town. The FLDS community is extremely wary of outsiders.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

Outside the community center where Brigham Johnson and his cohorts are meeting, there is no outward sign of turmoil in the sprawling, largely residential town. The streets feature unusually large houses, designed for polygamous families. When approached, residents stonily refuse to talk to “outsiders.”

They wear FLDS garb — prairie dresses in pastel colors for the women and girls, their hair in coiffed French braids, and for the men and boys, jeans and long-sleeved shirts, firmly buttoned down at the cuffs.

The town backs up to vermillion-hued sandstone cliffs that are spectacular at sunrise and sunset. But in all other directions the arid wilderness stretches for miles without another building in sight.

Almost a century ago, members of the FLDS began settling here because of its secluded location. They had been part of the original Mormon religion, which came into being in the United States in the 19th century. But in 1890, the federal government demanded that the Mormons outlaw polygamy in order for the territory of Utah, where they had settled, to be granted statehood. The main church assented, but purists who disagreed with the ban on their sacred practice broke away and formed splinter groups, calling themselves fundamentalists.

The main church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, and the best-known rebel group became known as the FLDS. Even though the two sides disowned each other at the time of the split and continue to reject each other today, they both revere Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith (a dedicated polygamist) and study his sacred texts, including the Book of Mormon.

While the LDS expanded across the world in the 20th century and moved closer to the mainstream, the FLDS did the opposite, consolidating around a small, hard-core group that preferred isolation and the religious extreme.

Today, the church elite in Short Creek, consisting of Warren Jeffs’ brothers Lyle and Nephi, among other chosen lieutenants, live inside a high-walled compound with security gates impenetrable to outsiders and even to lower-ranked church members.


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Another of the attendees at the secret meeting lived in the heart of that compound until he fled a year ago — one of Warren Jeffs’ sons.

The pale, thin young man is in his 20s but prefers not to give his exact age or full name, fearing retribution from the church against him or his family members still in the sect.

He is hunched down, baseball cap pulled low, almost as if he wants the big armchair to swallow him up, and he has been silent for most of the meeting. And when he does speak, in a halting voice, it is to reveal one of his earliest memories, of his time with his father.

“I was sexually abused by him from the age of 3. The stuff he was on trial for — he started that with our family years before,” he says.

It’s a startling allegation, even though Warren Jeffs was charged with aggravated sexual assault against minors in Texas, incest in Arizona and rape as an accomplice in Utah; he was handed a life sentence in the Lone Star State for taking underage wives as young as 12. During sentencing, a nephew of Jeffs testified that Jeffs had raped him when he was 5, and a niece said Jeffs had abused her when she was 7. Another nephew who said Jeffs had abused him committed suicide in 2001. And court documents detail how Jeffs admitted in prison that he had been “immoral” with one of his sisters and one of his daughters.

Though Jeffs was charged with incest and sexual conduct with minors in Arizona, he never stood trial there, instead being convicted in Utah in 2007 of rape as an accomplice for forcing Elissa Wall to marry her cousin.

Controversially, that Utah conviction was overturned in 2010 because of deficient jury instructions, and a new trial was ordered, but Jeffs was soon extradited to Texas to face the even more serious charge of aggravated sexual assault of minors. He was convicted there and sentenced to life in prison.

This building, originally constructed to house Jeffs and his wives and children, is now a bed and breakfast called America’s Most Wanted, an allusion to the fact that Jeffs was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

“When my dad became leader, he had so much power he could do what he wanted. He was God on earth. When he walked into the room I was sure he knew what I was thinking,” says Jeffs’ son.

Men in the FLDS commonly take more than one wife, while those higher up in the church hierarchy take several, some dozens. But Warren Jeffs surpassed them all.

“He had 80 wives,” the young Jeffs says. “When I was 14, I had ‘mothers’ who were two or three years younger than me — one was just 11. They were his wives and therefore they were regarded as my mothers.” Jeffs is rumored to have more than 250 children.

It sounds astonishing to outsiders, but the others in the meeting just nod grimly.

Girls in the FLDS were groomed from birth to want to marry young and, most of all, to want to marry the prophet. It did not dawn on Jeffs’ son until later how wrong this was. Now, he says: “It really hurts to know what my father did and to know that he is my dad. I feel shame.”

He quit the religion last year for the same reasons that are prompting many others to leave. His faith in the prophet unraveled as he learned the details of his father’s depravity. Daily life became intolerable as Jeffs’ edicts, delivered from behind bars, became increasingly harsh and seemingly arbitrary.

The FLDS has long been notorious for tearing families apart, most notably sending men away from the community to “repent,” sometimes for years, for breaking the rules or being seen to question orders from the leadership. In the interim, the men’s wives and children are handed over to other men.

Brigham Johnson, left, with others who have fled Jeffs’ church, at a meeting organized by Holding Out Help.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

But many who have left recently say that since his conviction, Jeffs has become worse. Upon receiving his sentence in 2011, he issued an edict to his followers banning all marriages and even sexual relations among married couples. He is splitting families up on flimsier pretexts now, sending children away from their parents and separating husbands and wives, sometimes without explanation.

It happened to Jeffs’ son, too, who was isolated from his family. “I wasn’t allowed to talk to my mother, and if I saw my siblings in town, they would not let me talk to them.”

Last February, he was working construction, as he had been since the age of 14, and was on a contract in Des Moines, Iowa, with an FLDS work crew. (The workers are paid little or nothing for long stretches — which helps the FLDS win bids for lucrative contracts, but has also attracted the attention of the Department of Labor.) Taking advantage of being away from the watchful eyes of devout members of the FLDS, he cadged a cell phone and some of the pay he was owed from his boss, then slipped away to catch a taxi to the airport. He bought a ticket to Salt Lake City, where he went to Holding Out Help. A charity that assists people leaving polygamous situations, HOH is one of the main stops on the underground railroad that helps people leave the sect. It was thanks to Tonia Tewell, the group’s founder and executive director, that Jeffs’ son had food and shelter when he first arrived. Now, he has a job cutting concrete.

When people come to us for help, we don’t judge them,” says Tewell. She deals with many ex-FLDS members who are fragile, some ashamed of being victims of abuse or just for being duped by the sect for so long.

Jeffs’ son, who says he is “very depressed,” thinks he would have gone crazy by now if he didn’t have the support of Tewell and HOH.

Food stored at the Holding Out Hope safehouse to help those who have fled the FLDS. Many who flee are left with no means of supporting themselves, and the food is intended to help them get by until they can integrate themselves into mainstream society.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America
Donated shoes are collected by Safety Net, another organization that helps those fleeing the FLDS and other polygamous groups.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

Some of those attending the meeting have left the FLDS but remained in town. One of them is Isaac Wyler, ex-communicated by Jeffs 11 years ago, who now helps others leave.

“The FLDS is crumbling,” he says now. “I estimate that 500 to 1,000 people have left in the last year, sometimes entire families.”

He knows ex-FLDS members who offer their homes as safe houses in Arizona and Utah. But his greatest wish is for people to stay in Short Creek and help tip the balance of the tiny town’s population away from the church — which is already happening.

Since Jeffs shut down the church-controlled supermarket a few years ago, there have been barely any stores in town, leaving most residents to go more than 40 miles away to the town of St. George for groceries. Now, however, the town sports a new hardware store, a health-food store and a coffee shop, all opened by non-FLDS residents.

And in a sign of the changing times, the public school in town reopened last fall to cater to fresh demand from those who have abandoned the religion, 13 years after it closed down because Jeffs had ordered his followers to be homeschooled.

Also last year, Short Creek was introduced to its very first major corporate brand when a branch of the Subway sandwich store opened on the main road into town. It’s proving very popular.

Back in the community center Jeffs’ son suddenly lights up.

A small group of his sisters, who he was not allowed to speak with while he was in the FLDS, have arrived to see him. The young women have also recently rejected their father as the prophet and walked out, but have decided to stay in town. Though they are not ready to talk publicly, they relay a message via a friend that they believe the truth about the FLDS “needs to be told.”

The women fuss over their brother, smoothing his ruffled hair while he grins bashfully. The siblings laugh and hug, delighted to be together again — and free.