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How the FLDS church consolidated power on the Utah-Arizona border

A recent lawsuit sheds new light on how the polygamist church and municipal leadership are deeply intertwined.

 

In January 2006, more than 3,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church, gathered inside their huge white meetinghouse in Colorado City, Arizona, for a regular Saturday work project service. Outside, unknown to the congregants, a handful of FBI agents were quietly approaching. They wanted to question 31 people about the whereabouts of Warren Jeffs, the church’s former “president and prophet,” who was on the run for performing a wedding involving an underage girl.

Within five minutes, just as a FLDS member named Jim Allred began the first prayer, FBI agents entered the building.

But the church’s private security force was ready, carefully trained by local law enforcement to obstruct the FBI without violence. They repeatedly stepped in front of the agents to block their entry into the assembly hall where one of the wanted men, Lyle Jeffs (Warren’s brother), sat near the front.

Lights come on after the sun sets in Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah together are known as Short Creek, an isolated community where many followers of the FLDS church live.
George Frey

The strategy worked. By the time FBI agents had forced their way in Jeffs had managed to flee to the church basement, where escape ATVs — kept there for this very purpose — were waiting for him. There, Jeffs and one of his assistants donned hooded masks to obscure their faces, started the ATVs, roared up a ramp out a side exit and disappeared. Most of the people in the assembly hall had no idea that Lyle Jeffs had just slipped out the back door.

The FBI lingered for 45 minutes, trying to get the local police to help them locate the other people who had been subpoenaed. Instead, the police helped the fugitives, tipping them off on the whereabouts of their pursuers. That day, all but 4 of the 31 people eluded the FBI, promptly going into hiding to avoid testifying against their leader.

Dowayne Barlow, a large man with close-cropped brown hair, played an instrumental role in the escape, supplying the camouflage hoods worn by Jeffs and his accomplice. But this past January, Barlow, who served as Lyle Jeffs' aide for years, took the witness stand inside a Phoenix courtroom, hoping his testimony would help expose how his small rural community had fallen under the spell of a power-hungry, seemingly deranged criminal.

The adjoining towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, — known collectively as Short Creek — have a population of 10,000, the majority of whom belong to the FLDS Church. For decades, the FLDS operated here with impunity, but in recent years, the Justice Department began cracking down, investigating allegations that municipal officials harass non-FLDS residents, deny them utility hookups, and spy on them. In January, the latest federal discrimination lawsuit against the two towns began, shedding new light on how the town officials acted as Warren Jeffs' pawns. The trial ended in March, with the jury siding with the Justice Department. But whether the case will weaken Jeffs’ grip on this remote desert outpost remains unclear.

Short Creek’s roots go back to 1890, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bowed to outside pressure and renounced polygamy. The decision enabled Utah to become a state, but it also alienated the more hardcore Mormons, who regarded polygamy as an integral part of their religion. So they broke away from the main church and splintered into sects, fanning out across the West and into Mexico. In the 1920s, one group retreated to a strip of high desert bracketed by jagged red cliffs. Here, they established Short Creek.

FLDS followers adhere to many of the same teachings as the LDS church, along with a number of older Mormon doctrines that the mainstream church renounced or modified in the late 19th century, including plural marriage. Though federal and state law prohibits polygamy, the Short Creek fundamentalists have, for the most part, been left undisturbed by outside law enforcement. Both Hildale and Colorado City have their own governments, but they have always been highly influenced by the fundamentalist church.

For most of Barlow’s 47 years, this system served him well. He had a highly structured but happy childhood in a prominent FLDS household, made up of his father, his father’s two wives, and their 25 children. The entire family shared a single bathroom and abided by their father’s strict moral code, which emphasized community service and humility. Barlow’s mother was musical and often gave impromptu piano concerts in their living room. His father, a superintendent of the local school district, encouraged his kids to participate in community activities. Barlow remembers the church dances, the Fourth of July celebrations, the ice cream socials, and the annual watermelon festival.

Barlow acknowledges that non-FLDS residents were always discriminated against in small ways. At the same time, he believes that the church generally selected “good public servants” who worked for the benefit of the entire community.

Several women dressed in traditional FLDS church attire walk on the streets of Colorado City, Arizona. This and the adjoining town are where Warren Jeffs oversaw his polygamist church and where most of his followers live.
George Frey

All that changed when Warren Jeffs, son of Rulon Jeffs, the previous FLDS prophet, came to power in the late ’90s. Since then, the remote fringe community has been repeatedly thrust into the national spotlight. Unlike his father, Warren disapproved of any kind of friendly relationships with nonbelievers. He was obsessed with the idea of  “perfect obedience” and convinced that contact with outsiders would taint his followers. FLDS-owned businesses closed as Jeffs sought to further isolate his people economically, socially and psychologically. Meanwhile, to consolidate his power, Jeffs began re-writing many of the church’s doctrines to support the one-man rule initiated by his father. (Before Rulon Jeffs took charge, the church was run by a seven-man governing body called the Council of Friends). Soon, Jeffs controlled nearly every aspect of his followers’ lives.

He banned the color red, for example. Then he banned the internet, toys, bicycles, holidays and all books that he had not written himself. He ordered adolescent girls to wed men as old as their grandfathers and began dissolving entire families. He appointed his most loyal followers to all the key town positions, including mayor, city manager and police chief. No decisions — even minor ones — could be made without a pass from church authorities. 

Barlow remembers the day in January 2004, when Warren cemented his power over the people of Short Creek — socially, politically, and religiously. More than 2,000 FLDS members watched as Jeffs publicly expelled 21 of the community’s highest-ranking men, denouncing them as “master deceivers” and ordering them to leave the community. Jeffs then “reassigned” the men’s wives to other men or took them, along with the men’s underage daughters, for himself. Anyone who questioned Jeffs’ leadership or decisions faced a similar fate.

“Everyone was scared of losing their families,” says Terrill Musser, who left the church when he was 18 and recently returned to Short Creek with his family. Nearly all FLDS members transferred ownership of their property to the church’s trust, called the United Effort Plan (created in 1942 as a continuation of an earlier trust established by Short Creek’s first FLDS settlers), as well as paying it a percentage of their incomes. By the time Jeffs took over, the FLDS owned nearly all of the land in Short Creek, which meant he could evict anyone, for any reason, a power he regularly used.

Jeffs’ ability to control access to information further solidified his power. By banning the internet and taking charge of all media in Short Creek, Jeffs controlled his followers’ perception of him and of the outside world. He not only sought to cut people off from that world, but to make them increasingly afraid of it.

Finally, in 2004, some of the people Jeffs had expelled from the community began to fight back, suing the church. In response, the state of Utah stripped Jeffs of control over the United Effort Plan, eventually restructuring it to benefit anyone who had contributed to the community, regardless of faith. Soon, apostates began returning to Short Creek to reclaim their former homes. 

Jeffs instructed his followers to shun the new arrivals. His private security force prowled the streets in SUVs with blacked-out windows, enforcing church discipline and harassing so-called apostates. The towns became bitterly divided as discrimination and harassment of non-FLDS members intensified.

“They’ll follow you around town really close,” says Musser. “They’ll try to threaten you.” FLDS kids have sneaked into his yard, he says, and paint-balled his house; they’ve also thrown rocks at his car. Other former church members claim their cars have been forced off the road and that dead animals have been left on their porches, their throats slit. For the most part, town officials ignored these complaints; some have even been accused of participating in them. According to court documents, people have been denied water hookups and even been arrested on false premises. 

Warren Jeffs sits in court as Washington County deputy attorney Ryan Shaum speaks during a motion hearing in St. George, Utah in 2007. Jeffs was facing two charges of rape as an accomplice for his alleged role in arranging the marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
AP Photo/Jud Burkett

As the complaints grew, the U.S. Justice Department took notice, filing a lawsuit against Short Creek officials in 2011. The towns eventually settled with the plaintiffs for $5.2 million, but the problems didn’t go away. Last year, the government sued again. During the seven-week trial this past winter, numerous witnesses testified about how the FLDS wielded enormous influence over Short Creek with the help of sympathetic officials. Relations between church and town were so intertwined that several city officials were members of the church’s private security force, known as “the God Squad.” They used public security cameras to spy on residents to see if they were associating with apostates.

Christopher Jessop testified about his own personal experience. Jessop, who had left the church at 18, moved back to Short Creek with his family in 2013. Neither his wife nor his children had ever belonged to the church. According to court records, Jessop described how the local police force repeatedly protected those who violently targeted non-FLDS members. Jessop’s 16-year-old son was hit by a truck — allegedly one belonging to the church’s private security force — while riding his bicycle. In addition to ignoring evidence implicating the church, the police officers later tried to coerce the boy into recanting his story.

“I worry about my family, especially my youngest daughter and son,” Jessop testified. “I understand how FLDS church security operates in Short Creek. My family has been harassed before, and I have no idea what church security could do to my family if they were ever ordered to.”

Jerold Williams and Elizabeth Wayman, both former FLDS members living in Short Creek, echoed Jessop’s complaints. The harassment they suffered at the hands of local police controlled by the church reached a breaking point when Williams was arrested in 2012 for trespassing in a home he had built and for which he held an occupancy agreement with the United Effort Plan. Recounting the arrest, Williams testified that he felt that the marshal’s office had targeted his family on behalf of the church. “They turned on us and treated us like vipers because we were no longer members of the FLDS church,” said Williams.

Officials in both towns denied allegations that they had threatened and violated rights of non-FLDS members. When the current mayor of Colorado City, Joseph Steed Allred, took the witness stand on Feb. 9, he answered questions concerning the town’s population, religion and education. But when he was asked about Warren Jeffs, the relationship between the FLDS church and town officials, and his wives’ ages at the time of their marriages, Allred looked at the Justice Department lawyer, Sean Keveney, and replied, “I respectfully plead the Fifth.”

Adrianna Hammon, right, and her friend Stacie Knudson, left, pose for a picture outside Warren Jeff's old compound in 2015 in Hildale, Utah. Both girls were kicked out of and left the FLDS church several years ago for not following the rules. Hammon says her brothers and sisters have had rocks thrown at them while attending the public school.
George Frey

For years, Ken Driggs, a legal historian who studies Mormon fundamentalism, wondered how Warren Jeffs managed to wield the power he did. He first met Jeffs in the late ’80s and recalls a spindly, geeky-looking man with an “exceptionally bland” personality. Driggs believes Jeffs’ quiet, unassuming exterior served as a kind of smokescreen, convincing his followers of his righteousness and benevolence, even as he ruthlessly eliminated any person or doctrine that did not support him.

Dowayne Barlow was one of many who remained in the church, even after Texas authorities convicted Jeffs in 2011 for having sex with two of his “spiritual wives,” ages 12 and 15. Like many of his fellow FLDS members, Barlow says he had no idea that the charges against their leader included the rape and sexual assault of young girls. Instead, Jeffs’ conviction only strengthened his followers’ loyalty. “It didn’t shatter the people as much as it drove people together out of fear that the government was persecuting Warren for his religious beliefs,” says Barlow.

But in the spring of 2012, Jeffs’ brother and surrogate leader, Lyle, ordered Barlow to help “reassign” the children of men whom Jeffs had expelled from the church. For the first time, Barlow began to ask questions. “I just felt that I had to know more,” he says. “If I injured these children by taking them from their homes. … It was too much of a weighty decision for me to do that.”

“I had to make a stand,” he says. Though he knew his decision would have serious consequences, Barlow left the FLDS church, which he now saw as less a church than as the cult of Warren Jeffs. That July, he left Short Creek with Cheryl, his wife, and their 11 children, and moved to Nebraska, where he found work as a contractor. (Cheryl is Barlow’s first wife in what had been a plural marriage; he separated from Rose, his second wife, when he left the church.)

Then, that October, he came home from work one day to find that Cheryl and the kids were gone. On the bed Barlow found a note. “I love you,” it read. “We’ll see you later.”

Earlier that day, FLDS church members showed up unannounced at Barlow’s home and used high-pressure tactics to convince Cheryl to take the kids and return to Short Creek. They frightened her by saying that Lyle Jeffs would come after her and her children. Two days later, Cheryl called Barlow and described how the men from the church had coerced her into returning to Short Creek. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I made a mistake.”

FLDS leaders ordered Cheryl and the children not to see Barlow. But after a year, worried that the church would try to get custody of her children – a tactic often used to intimidate women into either staying, or returning ––  Cheryl fled with them to Logan, Utah, where Barlow was living. They reconciled and began the difficult process of beginning new lives. Looking back, Barlow says the traumatic experience of seeing his family torn from him had one good result: “It confirmed these deep feelings we had that something was wrong with (Warren Jeffs).”

Jeffs, now 60, is eight years into a life sentence for multiple convictions of child rape, held in solitary confinement in a Texas prison. There, he allegedly continues to run the FLDS church from behind bars, communicating with his followers through letters, phone calls, and secret recordings taken during his wives’ visits in which he  recites his prophesies.  On April 6, for instance, the world was supposed to end. This was not the first time Jeffs erred on the timing of the apocalypse, having made a similar prediction for the millennium.

But according to historian Driggs and some community residents, deep cracks are forming in the church’s power. Along with the lawsuit, the church is facing another staggering legal challenge, with 11 high-ranking FLDS members, including Lyle Jeffs, indicted in February on allegations of food-stamp fraud and money laundering. The church controls food distribution for the sect through a vast storehouse, which FLDS-owned farms and businesses contribute to. According to prosecutors, FLDS members were ordered to scan their food-stamp debit cards at church-run stores and leave the money with the owners. Church leaders then funneled the money - an estimated $12 million — to shell companies, which funded purchases like a Ford F-150 and a John Deere tractor. Meanwhile, a growing number of FLDS families were suffering from hunger.

“The one thing he made damn sure was that his public image was unimpeachable, so people would adore and love and respect him,” says Barlow. “That’s probably the biggest heartache for those who have come to understand who he was.”Barlow and his family are now settled in Riverton, Utah, trying to re-build their lives and religious faith in the mainstream LDS church, in a very different world from the one they left behind. Barlow hopes all the legal action will help reduce FLDS’ power in Short Creek “I think it will change the landscape, certainly politically,” he says. Still, he fears that some of the damage inflicted by Jeffs will be irreparable.

That is a feeling that Barlow knows all too well. “You’ve based your whole life on a set of assumptions, and it’s like a kick in the gut when they turn out to be false."

Sarah Tory is a High Country News correspondent.