COLORADO CITY, Ariz. -- To his followers, Warren Jeffs is a teacher and spiritual leader who channels divine revelations -- the man they call their prophet.
To the FBI, Jeffs is an accused rapist and fugitive on its 10 Most Wanted list with a $100,000 bounty on his head -- a man it calls armed and dangerous.
Despite the conflicting images, one thing is clear: Jeffs’ four-year reign as the patriarch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, has been the most tumultuous in at least 50 years.
His authoritarian rule has sparked internal conflict and lawsuits alleging sexual abuse and other criminal misconduct. And that, in turn, has attracted rare public scrutiny of this secretive sect of 10,000 polygamists and its remote enclave on the Utah-Arizona border.
Those who have fled or been exiled, along with state investigators, describe it as a tyrannical theocracy.
“I have a corner of my state that is worse than [under] the Taliban,” Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff acknowledged.
Carolyn Jessop, who fled the community under cover of darkness with her eight children in a van and $20 in her pocket, said she still found it “hard to believe this stuff is going on in the United States.”
Jessop, now 38, was the fourth wife of a high-ranking church leader when she escaped that night three years ago. Fear drove her to desperation, she said.
Her oldest son had been yanked out of school at age 12 by his father to work construction jobs. And she feared that Jeffs, an accused pedophile, planned to take her 13-year-old daughter as his bride.
“I would have gone to the ends of the Earth to prevent that,” Jessop said.
She is one of the growing numbers of former church members speaking out, challenging state and federal authorities to protect women and children who they say are victims of widespread sexual abuse and wholesale civil rights violations.
“It’s not going to stop until somebody stands up to it or demands the state does,” Jessop said.
From its beginnings in the 1930s, the FLDS, an offshoot of Mormonism, was more than just a church. It was a way of life -- influenced by seemingly arbitrary edicts and so-called divine revelations that didn’t stop after Sunday services.
Playing basketball might be fine one day then outlawed the next. Church would be open, then shuttered for months. Men in good standing for years might be expelled without explanation.
Absolute obedience is the cornerstone of the faith and is endlessly preached.
“Man actually belongs to [the] prophet, willing to do what is directed,” Jeffs said in one sermon, according to a transcript. A woman, he said, should concentrate entirely on submitting to her husband, praying each morning, “ ‘I want to do your will, Father, through obeying my husband or my father or our prophet.’ ”
Control has been exerted in more practical ways as well. Until recently, the FLDS operated under a trust called the United Effort Plan. The trust ran businesses in Colorado City and adjoining Hildale, Utah. It owned all the homes, and members tithed 10% of their incomes, usually in monthly payments.
Residents lived largely rent-free but were at the mercy of the church. If they displeased the church, they could be evicted, and if they worked for an FLDS business, they could lose their jobs as well. Worst of all, for the faithful, they could be damned.
But one thing never changed: polygamy. It remains central to the faith as it once was to mainstream Mormons, before they abandoned the practice in 1890.
An FLDS text, “In Light and Truth,” quotes liberally from Mormon patriarchs such as Brigham Young to defend the practice.
“Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned,” Young declared in 1855.
Sect members are taught they cannot reach the highest levels of heaven without at least three wives. Women, or often girls, are “gifted” to men by the prophet, who is seen as revealing God’s plan. A former member said one of his “mothers” was 13 when he was 8. Wives are encouraged to give birth each year.
No one marries without the prophet’s permission. Circumventing the process can lead to excommunication.
Former FLDS prophet Leroy Johnson urged boys to avoid girls until he placed them into marriages.
“Treat the girls in your acquaintance as though they were snakes,” he counseled. “Hands off!”
Lenore Holm discovered the penalty for dissent in this theocratic community. She objected six years ago when the prophet came for her then-15-year-old daughter, Nicole.
Jeffs told the mother that he had selected her teenager to marry a 39-year-old man.
“I told Warren I would never give my consent to have my daughter marry that man,” she said. “He didn’t say much because he was so angry. He told us to get out.”
The entire family was ordered out of their home.
Holm waged a two-year court fight to block eviction. She kept her house but lost her daughter: The teenager married the man chosen for her by the prophet.
Most women give in without a fight, handing over their children to what one described as “the wolves scratching at the doors.”
Young members try to preempt arranged marriages by finding someone they like then asking permission to marry them.
Sometimes that backfires.
Ruth Stubbs was 15 when she asked then-prophet Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ father, if she could marry her sweetheart, Carl Cooke. The senior Jeffs said he’d “take it up with the heavenly father,” Stubbs recalled.
When she returned, accompanied by her sister’s husband, Rodney Holm, Rulon Jeffs told her: “It comes to me that you belong to Rod.”
Stubbs said she burst into tears.
“He asked if I was willing to do whatever the prophet asks and I said I was,” Stubbs recalled in a recent interview. “They didn’t even give me 24 hours.”
The two were married in 1998, and Stubbs became wife No. 3 for Rodney Holm, a then-32-year-old Colorado City police officer.
Still, as easily as marriages can be done, they can just as easily be undone.
Richard Holm, a Colorado City town councilman, had both of his wives and his children taken from him and given to his brother. Then he was kicked out of town.
“Warren told me that the Lord had told him to get rid of me,” Richard Holm recalled. “I thought there was some kind of misunderstanding.”
Church rules provided no avenue for appeal. He was exiled in 2003.
Boys booted out of the community were exiled on the flimsiest of pretexts. The reason, say outside investigators, was to reduce competition for wives.
Sam Icke was one of more than 400 youths expelled. They are now known as the Lost Boys. His crime was having a girlfriend. He met with Jeffs before his exile.
“He asked me graphic sex details and took notes,” recalled Icke, who was 18 at the time. “I was told to repent, so I went on a repenting spree. I wanted to stay. I was afraid, like a bird being pushed out of its nest. My dad got a call a few days later from Warren and he said I should leave.”
Icke was helped by the Diversity Foundation near Salt Lake City, which shelters and educates the teens.
The boys said FLDS leaders often sent police to harass and ticket them. Some boys said they left because they couldn’t pay their fines.
“The cops would stalk me and try to give me curfew violation tickets,” said Carl Ream, 17, who was thrown out at age 14.
John Jessop, also exiled at 14, said police would wait for him to get home at night, then cite him for a curfew infraction.
“The cops care more about religion than the law,” he said.
Former Colorado City Police Chief Sam Roundy denied allegations of police harassment when questioned by investigators from the Utah and Arizona police standards boards, which were looking into his background and training. He said only lawbreakers were targeted.
But a former police dispatcher said he saw examples of police harassment.
“If there was a young kid in town they didn’t like, they would get rid of him,” said Paul Musser, the former dispatcher. “I was in the station. I heard all the calls. The police were watching for people they thought were not good influences. They would wait for probable cause or maybe they wouldn’t.”
Women and girls, needed as wives, are rarely pushed out. Instead, those who disobey face being sent to mental hospitals.
Pam Black said her now deceased husband, a Colorado City police officer, would hold the phone and threaten to dial 911 whenever she refused his commands.
“He would say he was going to have me handcuffed and taken to an insane asylum,” said Black, a former FLDS member. “That’s all a man had to do, call 911.”
Sworn affidavits of FLDS women have accused law enforcement here of illegally transporting them to mental facilities without due process. The affidavits were submitted as part of an Arizona state inquiry into local police practices.
In one instance described under oath, a woman fleeing her abusive husband was picked up by the local sheriff’s deputy, an FLDS member, and taken to a hospital in Utah. According to the affidavit, the deputy called the prophet, not his law enforcement superiors, and was directed to a Provo, Utah, mental facility.
Other women said they were taken by police to the Guidance Center, a mental hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Laurene Jessop ended up there after brawling with a “sister wife” who she said had tried to strangle her daughter. Their husband summoned the police. Two Colorado City officers arrived, handcuffed Laurene Jessop and took her in a police car to the Guidance Center, she said.
“They didn’t give me a choice,” she said, recalling that the officers told her, “ ‘You’re not keeping sweet -- you are being rebellious.’ ”
It all happened quickly. She did not grant permission to be admitted and “there was no court proceeding that I know of,” Laurene Jessop said.
Husband Val Jessop said in an interview that she had been ripping up the garden and acting violently.
The clinic’s discharge summary, obtained by The Times, said Laurene Jessop suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome stemming from childhood sexual abuse. It said she also suffered stress in her relations with sister wives, and proposed that she seek couple’s counseling with Warren Jeffs.
A Guidance Center spokeswoman declined to discuss any cases. “Our facility is not allowed to release any information about clients or their care,” said Susan Nelson, outpatient clinical director.
Jeffs’ counseling style is evident in a recent report by a Washington County, Utah, sheriff’s deputy investigating a rape allegation in Hildale. The victim had been reluctant to marry an older man as ordered.
Although the girl also was underage for legal marriage, Jeffs said it was her “spiritual duty” to wed the older man. He personally performed the ceremony. When she balked at having sex with her new husband, Jeffs rebuked her.
“You go give yourself mind, body and soul to your husband like you’re supposed to,” he said, according to the sheriff’s report.
“No matter what happens, you cannot fight with the priesthood,” Jeffs reportedly told her. “Because if you do, you’ll lose your salvation.”
The sheriff’s report identifies the victim as “Jane Doe IV,” who was a teenager at the time she was forced to marry.
Surrounded by outside authorities too timid to act and local police unwilling to protect them, victims here have risked home and livelihood by fighting back.
Pennie Petersen was born and raised in Colorado City. Independent-minded even as a child, she read voraciously, even books banned by the FLDS like the works of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.
Yet all the time, she said, she was fending off sexual abuse from every direction.
“My best friend got married at 14. Her husband ... started getting on me. I went to my parents; big mistake.... The prophet Leroy Johnson decided I should marry [the abuser],” Petersen recalled. “I’d be his fifth wife and he was 48.”
Petersen said if molesters were caught with a girl, the abusers were often told to marry the victims.
Unwilling to marry at 14, Petersen ran away to Las Vegas but never really escaped. She learned that her 12-year-old sister had married 39-year-old Colorado City polygamist William Orson Black Jr.
Petersen tried to intervene. By the time she persuaded authorities to raid Black’s house, he had fled with her sister to Mexico. He remains a fugitive.
Investigators with the Arizona attorney general’s office think Colorado City police tipped off Black. The local police also are accused of warning Warren Jeffs when Utah investigators tried, and failed, to serve him with a subpoena.
In 2001, Petersen found another of her sisters, Ruth Stubbs, on her doorstep fleeing what she said was an abusive polygamous marriage to Rodney Holm.
Petersen assembled details and persuaded Utah to prosecute Holm for having sex with a minor; Stubbs was 16 when she married him. He was sentenced to a year in jail, serving at night, and was released after six months.
It is rare for polygamists to be prosecuted in Utah. State authorities consider it impractical to prosecute its estimated 20,000 polygamists, though the practice is a felony in Utah.
“Everything we have done we had to push them on,” Petersen said of state and local authorities. “They were all chicken because they feel they will lose their whole careers if they go after this.
“They keep saying it’s a religious freedom issue,” Petersen complained. “I keep saying it is not a religious freedom issue, it’s about sleeping with children.”
Rodney Holm’s conviction provided an opening for other victims, the first crack in FLDS defenses against outsider intrusions. A group of Lost Boys followed up with a lawsuit against the church. Another man sued Warren Jeffs saying the prophet molested him as a child.
Internal frictions mounted as Jeffs imposed increasingly draconian punishments.
He called a rare town meeting in January 2004 and read the names of 21 men he called “master deceivers,” including Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow. They were excommunicated, and Jeffs gave their wives and children to other men.
“Warren looked at us and said, ‘You know what you have done,’ ” recalled Isaac Wyler, who was on the list and didn’t know why.
The 21 were instantly divorced by Jeffs’ decree, and their families were ordered to stop talking to them.
“He told us to keep working, keep sending him money, and to repent from afar,” Wyler said. “I sent him a 25-page letter of repentance listing anything I might have done. He never answered my letter.”
The news media swarmed the town. Rumors spread that the exiled men were coming back with guns blazing.
Most significantly, however, former insiders began telling their stories. Few were as explosive as the one told by Brent Jeffs. And he told his in a formal complaint filed in court.
In 2004, Brent Jeffs named his uncle Warren Jeffs in a civil suit seeking damages for alleged sexual abuse suffered as a boy. He charged that his uncle routinely sodomized him as a 5-year-old in the bathroom at an FLDS school where Warren Jeffs was a teacher and principal.
Brent Jeffs kept quiet for years, he said, until the nightmares became unbearable. He said he would wake screaming, “Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me!” When he finally told his family, two of his brothers said the same abuse happened to them.
Warren Jeffs did not respond to the suit. He has not been seen in public since the lawsuit was filed.
Brent Jeffs, now 23, is seeking a default judgment. His brother Clayne shot himself in the head shortly after sharing his long-held secret.
“I have no doubt our son’s death was due to Warren,” said Ward Jeffs, Brent and Clayne’s father. “He would put the fear of God into people, telling them that perfect obedience assures heaven. Now he’s running like a scared rabbit. Eventually the man will have to pay for doing such bad things to people.”
Lawsuits and news coverage finally attracted the attention of state officials. Utah’s Shurtleff and his counterpart in Arizona, Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard, met with some of the Lost Boys and exiled men.
“The first question out of my mouth was, ‘Why are we letting this go on? Why isn’t there someone prosecuting these cases?’ ” Shurtleff said.
“Jeffs is a coward, a tyrant and a pedophile. The more I hear about how women are treated, the racism -- every time you think you’ve heard it all, you hear something new.”
Shurtleff first went after the trust, working to break up the $150-million United Effort Plan. Through court action, he put it under the supervision of an outside administrator, removing eviction threats as an FLDS tool.
His office also is looking into allegations of welfare fraud. Shurtleff said 66% of Hildale residents and 78% in Colorado City received welfare, usually food stamps.
Goddard asked the U.S. Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation to determine whether the Colorado City police unlawfully expelled boys from town and improperly handled sexual abuse complaints.
Arizona also is investigating the local school district and has found widespread misuse of state funds.
In 2001, the church pulled 1,000 children from the public school, leaving about 200 non-FLDS children behind. But the number of FLDS administrators on the school district payroll did not decline, Goddard said.
The school is now in state receivership with a new principal.
“They used [school] credit cards for personal use; they took unnecessary trips. They were paying people who weren’t there,” said Mike File, superintendent of Mohave County, Ariz., schools. “This district is as corrupt as corrupt gets.”
There are other signs that the polygamist enclave is changing, from inside and outside.
Colorado City Police Officer Sam Roundy and another officer were decertified last year and lost their badges.
The church hierarchy has relocated to a sprawling compound in Eldorado, Texas, where a new temple recently was completed.
Enclaves have emerged in South Dakota and Colorado. FLDS groups also operate in Nevada, Idaho, British Columbia and Mexico.
And the search for Warren Jeffs has spread nationwide.
In October, Seth Jeffs, Warren’s brother, was arrested near Pueblo, Colo., along with a cousin. Sheriff’s deputies searching their car found five cellphones, $140,000 in cash, letters and a large glass jar with Warren Jeffs’ picture that said, “Pennys for the prophet.”
Seth Jeffs pleaded guilty this month to harboring a federal fugitive. He is to be sentenced in July.
In the last week, attention to the fugitive prophet intensified when the FBI announced it had put him on its 10 Most Wanted list.
Warren Jeffs made the list, said FBI agent Deborah McCarley in Phoenix, “because he is considered a danger to the community.”
Whether or not justice finally has come to this patch of desert, there is no question that state and federal law enforcement is a serious presence here for the first time in 50 years.
On the edge of town, Mohave County officials have set up a social services center and, significantly, a criminal investigation office.
Gary Engels, who runs the office, cited some of the most important changes.
“We got the [trust] under state control; we got the schools under state control; we got the leaders on the run,” he said.
And Arizona Atty. Gen. Goddard said it was time the community played by the same rules as the rest of the country.
“You can’t have a sect ... out there saying, ‘The law doesn’t apply to us ... and the only thing that matters is what our prophet tells us,’ ” he said.
“That’s fundamentally unacceptable.”