America's most wanted: The man with eighty wives

Warren Jeffs is the brutal tyrant behind America's
leading Mormon cult - as well as a prolific polygamist
with a penchant for child brides. For two years he has
been the target of an FBI manhunt. Sanjiv Bhattacharya
joined the chase 
Published: 19 July 2006

It is astonishing how much a cult leader can get done
while he is on the run from the FBI. Witness the case
of Warren Jeffs, leader of the largest fundamentalist
Mormon cult in the US, the Fundamentalist Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) whose members
number in the region of 10,000. 

In the two years Jeffs has been a fugitive from
justice, he has built compounds in Colorado, South
Dakota and Texas, the latter including a huge temple.
He has rigorously controlled his followers, draining
them of $5m (2.7m) per month by some estimates, and
performed scores of marriages in his capacity as
"Prophet", no doubt adding to his own tally of 80 or
so wives along the way (no one knows the exact

It is also possible that he has raped dozens of
children. Jeffs is wanted for sex with a minor,
conspiracy to have sex with a minor and rape of a
minor as an accomplice. If caught and convicted, he
could face a lifetime in prison. That he has been able
to do all of this while eluding capture - by not only
the FBI, but police in six states - might suggest that
he is a highly sophisticated fugitive. And perhaps he
is. But he cannot take all the credit - for most of
his two years in hiding, the law enforcement agencies
have been as inactive as he has been busy.

I discovered this when I set off to try to track Jeffs
down for my programme The Man With 80 Wives. I spent a
month criss-crossing the country questioning his
followers and former followers, his brother and nephew
and, most significantly, some of his most senior
henchmen, known as "bishops".

It was hard going - Jeffs's followers are openly
hostile to outsiders. They tail your car, shout abuse.
Nevertheless, I came close. I learnt that he had
recently performed marriages near the communities I
was investigating. And I managed to contact key
members of Jeffs' hierarchy, the very people who would
know his whereabouts and could well have been
harbouring him.

But when I mentioned their names to Robert Foster, the
FBI agent in charge of the investigation, he told me
he had never heard of them. He had not heard about the
marriages Jeffs had performed. And he had never been
down to Jeffs' compound in Texas.

That was in October, a year into the supposed manhunt.
The FBI has changed gear since then. Agent Foster has
been replaced by Agent John E Lewis, and this past few
months, the net appears to finally be closing in on
the FLDS.

In April, Jeffs was charged with the fresh crime of
rape- as-an-accomplice - essentially arranging
underage marriages.

In May he was elevated to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted,
alongside Osama bin Laden, with a $100,000 reward. And
in the largest community of FLDS members - an
exclusively polygamous area called Short Creek, on the
border between Utah and Arizona - the battle has
commenced. The cult's $107m trust has been frozen, and
collection notices for property back taxes have been
posted on every door. Police and lawyers have swarmed
the community, slapping indictments on eight of Jeffs'
lieutenants for sundry sex crimes against minors.

It has been a while since the authorities clamped down
on the polygamists of Short Creek. The last time was
in 1953, when Governor Pyle of Arizona raided the
community, arresting the 33 fathers and taking the 300
women and children into custody. And it was a dismal
failure, a PR disaster - press stories of the state
tearing God-fearing families apart played so badly
with the public that the Governor was not re-elected.
The authorities have shied away from confronting
polygamy ever since.

Warren Jeffs is, in many ways, the legacy of those
raids. He was born two years later, at the start of an
era in which the remote, secretive Short Creek
community was left largely unchecked - in spite of its
openly polygamous lifestyle, evidence of enormous
welfare fraud and a dark reputation for incest and
child brides.

The population boomed, businesses prospered and the
FLDS grew in wealth and authority. Even when the cult
established its own local polygamist police force -
which in effect served as Jeffs's personal militia
(and harassed me constantly while I was there) - the
states of Utah and Arizona chose to look the other
way. And now, they are faced with a religious despot
of cartoonish proportions. Jeffs's tyranny is
extraordinary in its details. He did not just ban
television, newspapers, radio and any kind of media,
including the internet. He also banned holidays, the
colour red, stripes and competitive sport. He banned
all books except the Mormon scriptures. Even laughter
was forbidden, because, as he assured his followers,
it caused "the spirit of God to leak from their

Despite his exile Jeffs has successfully filled his
flock with fear - primarily the fear of losing their
places in heaven, for which he is gatekeeper, but also
the fear of the outside world and fear of each other.

Like his fellow most wanted fugitive, Bin Laden, he
distributes tapes of his speeches to his followers.
The similarities go on - they are both over 6ft tall,
unfeminist to say the least, and it is believed that
Jeffs may even have spent time hiding in a secret

The fear of outsiders in Short Creek is immediately
apparent. It is something of a tradition among
polygamists, who have for so long been on the outside
of the law. I cleared streets in seconds - children
were rushed indoors, blinds were drawn, shop owners
would turn the sign to "closed". And yet, the
fundamentalists are wary of each other too. Jeffs has
infected his flock with a culture of snitching. An air
of mistrust pervades.

This came to its peak when he enlisted a group of
teenage boys to spy for him. Known as the Sons of
Helaman, they would come knocking on a fictitious
pretext, invite themselves in and report back to Jeffs
any infractions of his myriad laws. His people were
terrified. They still are, even though the Sons have
since been disbanded. They know that the consequences
of a violation are often devastating and that exile
has done nothing to dim Jeffs' taste for punishment.

Should a man displease him, he commonly throws him out
of his home and business (both often built on church
property). Then he "reassigns" his wives and children
to a "worthier" man.

In most cases of reassignment, the beleaguered father
is so desperate to win his family back that he dares
not speak out against the Prophet. But Richard Holm, a
Short Creek businessman, told me about his experience.
In 2004, Warren sent him away to repent - for no
reason other than it was the Lord's wish - and the
next thing Holm knew his wives were remarried to his
own brother.

Polygamy is commonly accused of demeaning and
devaluing women, and within the FLDS they are traded
like commodities. But they are commodities with value,
to be hoarded and guarded. Females are not thrown out
of the community, they are regarded as assets of the
Priesthood to be employed and distributed as the
Prophet sees fit. It is the surplus men who are deemed
worthless. Hundreds of fathers and teenage boys have
been expelled from the FLDS to leave more young girls
for the older men. And as with Holm, the betrayal for
these "Lost Boys" comes from the closest family
members. There may be no clearer illustration of just
how fanatical Jeffs's followers are than the hundreds
of cases of parents depositing their own teenage sons
at the city limits, or at a bus shelter in Las Vegas,
some four hours' drive away, and then turning their
backs on them forever.

It is his alleged crimes against children, however,
that reveal the truest picture of Jeffs' personal

I met Warren's half-brother Ward at his home in a
suburb of Salt Lake City. This huge and hearty man
shook with grief when he described how his children
had suffered at Warren's hands. He believes at least
four of them were raped by Warren - all of them boys
around five or six years old, all sodomised routinely
in the lavatories at the school where Warren taught
and the boys were his students.

For years the boys said nothing. Then the first
victim, Clayne, revealed the abuse under hypnosis.
Still, it was only after Clayne's suicide in 2001 that
his two brothers, Brent and Brandon, came forward.

"He told me when he was doing it, 'This is God's will,
and this is your way to become a man,'" said Brent,
23, sitting beside his father on the sofa. Brent has
filed a civil case against his uncle, but it is yet to
become a criminal case. "I just want to expose him for
who he is, however I can."

Ward and Warren had grown up together in the Salt Lake
Valley, 400 miles from Short Creek. Their father,
Rulon Jeffs, was an affluent businessman who became
the Prophet before Warren. The picture Ward paints of
the younger Warren is that of a quiet, nerdy type who
was never particularly popular. Born to his father's
fourth and favoured wife, Marilyn, after high school
Warren worked with his father as an accountant. He
then became a maths and science teacher at the FLDS's
private school.

Within three years he was the school's principal, a
position he held until the school closed in 1998. It
was here that his penchant for power and paedophilia
began to manifest itself.

He developed an obsession with obedience - his best
known maxim remains "perfect obedience leads to
perfect faith". He was known for cruel public canings
and for taping his droning lectures about church
history and Mormon scripture. And yet, this stentorian
bore and maths geek also saw himself as a wag, an
entertainer. "Oh, he thought he was a hoot," says
Brent. "He was always cracking jokes, and we all had
to laugh."

By the time Rulon and Warren moved to Short Creek in
1998 - convinced that the Apocalypse was near - Rulon
was nearing 90 and he suffered a series of strokes
that rendered him all but unintelligible. Warren began
to speak for him. And as Rulon's condition
deteriorated, so Warren's power increased until he was
effectively running the FLDS. Within five days of
Rulon's death in 2002, Warren had not only declared
himself the Prophet, citing divine revelation, but
also had his pick of his father's wives, essentially
marrying his grieving stepmothers.

In the four years since, Jeffs' extremism has
accelerated, and with it, his paranoia. By 2003 the
show-off and joker had given way to a recluse who
travelled with an armed guard. In 2004 he moved out of
Short Creek to the tiny farming town of Eldorado,
1,000 miles south east in Texas.

The effort and expense expended on his Eldorado
compound - a vast, gleaming white temple visible for
miles around, with a road system, several large
houses, two big meeting halls and a thriving vegetable
garden - seems to indicate that Jeffs is taking the
long view.

Relocating his chosen few from the scrutiny of Short
Creek to a private ranch shielded on all sides is a
rational choice for a Prophet this reclusive.

But the grimmer possibilities cannot be ignored. Cults
and west Texas have an ominous history after Waco. And
for Jeffs, Judgement Day could happen any time now -
he has been predicting the end of the world since

According to Sam Brower, a private investigator who
has been trailing Jeffs for years, the temple itself
is a sign. "The FLDS has never had a temple before.
And they have a prophecy that says, 'with the laying
of the last stone of the temple, the people shall be
raised up to Zion'."

Former members of the FLDS agree that there could be a
bloody end to all this. Ross Chatwin told me that "in
his last sermon Warren said, 'stand up if you woulddie
for me' and a thousand people got up".

When I put this to Sheriff Doran of Eldorado, however,
he dismissed it all as alarmist. "Show me the
evidence," he said. "I've got no problem with them. We
have freedom of religion in this country, so until I
find evidence of a crime that has been committed,
they're fine by me."

An odd response, given that an apocalyptic cult
leader, alleged paedophile and wanted fugitive has
erected an enormous temple in his back yard. Not to
mention the fact that everyone on the ranch practises
polygamy, which is illegal.

A reluctance to confront Jeffs also seems to suit the
current climate in the US regarding matters of
religion. During Bush's faith-based presidency it is
taboo to question religious belief and fashionable to
exalt faith over reason. And what is the FLDS if not

It will be fascinating to see how the Jeffs story
plays out. A showdown in Texas would be the most
exciting final chapter, and may well be what Warren
has in mind - a tense, long-drawn stand-off on
prime-time television ending in a gunfight in which he
is shot to pieces by federal agents.

It would forever enshrine him in a tradition of Mormon
martyrs - none more venerated than the religion's
founder Joseph Smith, who was also hounded and shot.

It is more likely that he will simply be picked up in
transit. If the recent pressure is sustained, it will
not be long - in order to maintain control of his
followers, he needs to control their marriages. So he
has no choice but to travel constantly between a few
communities. I doubt he will go quietly - his
bodyguards are armed, and the martyrdom option will
always be available.

But my hope is that by some chance, the Prophet will
survive his arrest and we will see him on trial,
taking the stand to defend himself. Only then will we
see exactly who his followers have venerated as a
God-figure, a modern Christ. Only then will we see
exactly how much damage faith can do.


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