A decade after the arrest of polygamous prophet Warren Jeffs, insiders say his church has literally become a place of feast or famine, of haves and have-nots.
Prison has done little to loosen Jeffs’ hold on many of his followers, even if he is now a convicted child-sex offender serving a life sentence. They still await his revelations and follow his directives, both difficult and bizarre.
But some members are leaving the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — and disobeying their prophet’s longstanding orders to avoid law enforcement and “answer them nothing.”
These FLDS outcasts are talking to the FBI.
They include the former cooks and drivers for the Jeffs family, as well as ex-wives and others who hovered close to the church leaders and their power center. Their words fill hundreds of pages of freshly filed federal court documents, bringing outsiders into the cloistered world of the FLDS like never before.
According to these breakaway members, the FLDS of 2016 has a pecking order: There are the elite church leaders and chosen followers, and everyone else.
“There was so much class distinction and shunning of people,” said a former cook for the family of Bishop Lyle Jeffs, the prophet’s brother and right-hand man. She spoke of seeing shopping carts full of meat and turkeys earmarked for the bishop’s family while others made do with rice and beans.
The new social structure came about, as so many things do in the FLDS, when prophet Warren Jeffs had a revelation. This one came on December 12, 2011, about four months after he started serving the life sentence in Texas.
He told followers that God ordered him to create a United Order of members most worthy of heaven. And, before the month was up, his brother Lyle was lining up members at the old elementary school and quizzing them about their lives and faith to determine who was, indeed, worthy. They were instructed to hand over everything they owned and told the church would provide for their earthly needs.
The prophet — and there is little doubt Warren Jeffs is still the FLDS prophet — chooses who will be included in the United Order. His brothers, Lyle and Seth, serve as “bishops” and carry out the prophet’s wishes at FLDS compounds along the Utah-Arizona border and in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The cook, Allene Jeffs Steed, told the FBI last year that while she prepared feasts of lobster and shrimp for the bishop, her own children “lived off toast.” She used duct tape to hold her kids’ shoes together. And hers wasn’t the only FLDS family to go without.
“We were literally starving,” Sheryl Barlow told the FBI in February. She lived in a house with 40 people and said they subsisted on noodles, brown rice, tomato juice and, when they were lucky, bread or a few containers of yogurt.
Federal prosecutors allege that food for the families of church leaders was ordered separately from stores such as Costco, while other members were left to shop at a warehouse of pooled resources called “the bishop’s storehouse.” Often, there wasn’t enough in the storehouse for everyone, and those at the bottom of the FLDS pecking order had to settle for whatever was left.
“We had little children that were starving, big people that were starving,” Barlow said. “It wasn’t enough to sustain.”
Fear and small numbers have long silenced the “apostates,” as the FLDS calls its turncoats. They’d be cut off from their families, shunned and harassed. Now, there are just too many of them. In some cases, entire families are leaving the fold.
The witnesses lent their voices to two court actions likely to mark a major turning point for the FLDS. In one, federal authorities took aim at the church leadership, trying to loosen its grip on two small towns along the Utah-Arizona border known as Short Creek, where some 7,500 FLDS members live. The other, filed in February, targets the way the FLDS allegedly uses women and children as welfare cash cows.
A federal jury in Phoenix agreed that the city governments in Short Creek — Hildale on the Utah side and Colorado City on the Arizona side — were so corrupted by the FLDS that they discriminated against non-members by denying them police service, water hookups and other utilities. A federal judge has set aside four days in late October for testimony to help him decide what steps to take. Those could include decertifying the city governments and disbanding the shared police force, the Colorado City Marshal’s Office.
As that trial ended, another case began in Salt Lake City with criminal charges filed accusing 11 FLDS members — including Lyle and Seth Jeffs — of engaging in a food stamp swindle and money-laundering scheme that raked in some $12 million.
“Bleeding the beast,” the FLDS calls it. The “beast,” of course, is the federal government.
While families entitled to the food stamps went hungry, federal prosecutors allege, church leaders funneled food purchased with federal assistance into their own pantries or illegally exchanged food stamps for cash to plow into church projects — including publication of the prophet’s 854-page book of prison revelations, titled “Jesus Christ, Message to All Nations.” One witness who worked in the front office estimated the printing costs at $250,000.
Cash was obtained by ringing up ghost “purchases” at two FLDS-owned stores in Short Creek, according to a federal indictment accusing bishops Lyle and Seth Jeffs and nine other church members in a scheme to fraudulently obtain food stamp cards and launder money. At times, the FLDS stores’ food stamp sales rivaled those at Costco or Walmart, federal authorities alleged. They say the laundered cash was used on big-ticket items such as a Ford F-350 truck ($30,236), a John Deere tractor ($13,561) and $16,978 in paper products, to list a few.
Ten of the defendants have pleaded not guilty; Seth Jeffs, who was extradited from South Dakota, pleaded not guilty on March 28 in federal court in Salt Lake City. All defendants but Lyle Jeffs are free on bond. He is appealing a judge’s order to keep him behind bars, and a hearing is set for Wednesday.
Attorneys for some defendants are disputing details of what the government says former FLDS members are saying. For example, Lyle Jeffs’ attorneys already have won a major point in court: Allegations that he might run to a ranch in South America, for example, are simply untrue, his lawyers say. He doesn’t even have a passport.
Meanwhile, the government is seeking forfeiture of some $191,000 found in several bank accounts linked to the FLDS.
Federal prosecutors are applying the same tried and true tactics they’ve used against the mafia, prison gangs, drug cartels and other organized crime groups. Besides enlisting the testimony of former loyalists, they’re following the money.
The United Order
Food stamp swindles and civil lawsuits usually don’t make for compelling storytelling, but the court records surfacing in the FLDS cases offer an unvarnished glimpse inside a cloistered sect that does not welcome contact with outsiders.
The stories told by former FLDS members are among more than 100 exhibits filed in support of keeping the Jeffs brothers behind bars as the food stamp fraud case moves forward.
Details of life inside the FLDS can be found in excerpts from multiple FBI reports of witness interviews — 302s in bureau parlance — that place what once was easily dismissed as mere rumor squarely in the public record. They come from people who had been taught to believe outside law enforcement was the enemy.
Normally, the judge and lawyers agree, a fraud case wouldn’t be serious enough to justify pretrial detention. But this is an FLDS case, and the sect’s history of hiding fugitives is well documented. Warren Jeffs spent several months on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list until his arrest outside Las Vegas in 2006.
He was sentenced in August 2011 to life in prison in Texas, convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, 12 and 15, who he considered his “spiritual brides.” An audiotape of the prophet having sex with the 12-year-old was among the most damning evidence at his trial.
With establishment of the United Order, the old Phelps elementary school in Hildale, which closed in 2002 after the prophet ordered all FLDS children home-schooled, was rebranded as Jeffs Academy. Here, followers turned in all their wordly goods for “consecration” in the bishop’s storehouse across the street. They attended “trainings” to learn how to be worthy of eternal salvation and emerged rebaptized as members of the United Order.
Sometimes the mass baptisms lasted until the wee hours. One early recruit recalled attending a ceremony in which 26 followers were baptized.
But not everyone was worthy. Those who didn’t make the cut were considered “conditional members”; they could still hand over everything they owned, but they couldn’t live under the same roof as family members in good standing.
The documents reveal in painful detail how families were shattered as men and women were exiled or left. Children were shuffled between families and between FLDS compounds.
As one mother told the FBI, “You don’t get to choose where your child goes or who gets to be their caretaker. They just disappear.”
The United Order rewarded elites while the rank and file faced severe deprivation. Husbands and wives were prohibited from having sex; foods such as milk and cold cereal were outlawed; movies, television and the Internet were off limits. Anyone who defied these restrictions faced losing everything.
Establishment of the United Order created a highly stratified and hierarchical society of elites, regular priesthood holders, people “on restoral” who are trying to earn their way back in, and apostates. Adults were caught in a cycle of falling in and out of the prophet’s favor. And, according to more than one witness, women and girls were driven to secret FLDS compounds around the country in trailers equipped with portable toilets.
Some FLDS children may not even know who their biological parents are.
As one witness told the FBI: Jeffs “has so torn apart the meaning of families and marriage (that) many young men in the community no longer have a desire to be married.”
Amos Guiora, a professor at the University of Utah law school, has spoken to dozens of women and teens who fled the FLDS over the years, and has written extensively about them. He said their “powerful and compelling” stories show what can happen when “crimes are committed in the name of religion.”
He said he believes the former FLDS members opened up to him hoping their stories would find their way to somebody in authority.
And so they have.
For a while, even the cell bars couldn’t keep Prophet Warren Jeffs from engaging in the practices that caused him to run afoul of the law in the first place: sexual encounters with multiple wives, some under the legal age of consent.
From prison, Jeffs would listen in over the telephone as some of his 80 or more “spiritual wives” engaged in nightly group sex rituals, Jeffs family caretaker Roy Allred told the FBI. The prophet called these “heavenly comfort sessions” sanctioned by the sect’s “Higher Law of Sarah.” At least one participant sounded to Allred like she was underage and inexperienced in the ways of sex.
The sessions apparently began after Jeffs made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, and was on the run. He’d call in from the road, first to the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas, where he had a soundproof bedroom, and later to R-23, the FLDS compound hidden in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Allred handled Jeffs’ secure phone lines, and happened to listen in one day. He told the FBI what he overheard left him reeling in shock.
“Roy understood that the women were being asked to engage in group sex at Warren’s direction,” the FBI report states. The prophet asked the women “if they were together and had prepared themselves.” Allred “understood that to mean they had showered together and were naked in a prayer circle.”
Allred said he could hear heavy breathing and some of the wives whispered they wished Jeffs were with them. The prophet encouraged them, exhorting, “Go after it” and “Go all the way.” The women responded, saying, “Yes, we are doing this for you.” And “This is heavenly. This is so special.”
Allred told the FBI he heard the women initiate an inexperienced newcomer into the group. As she responded to what the other wives were doing to her, Allred said, Jeffs told her, “You are affecting me.”
The heavenly comfort sessions went on nightly, for months, according to Allred. They continued long after Jeffs was arrested and locked up.
The prophet said he knew he was breaking the rules, at least as they apply to other FLDS men who “hold the priesthood,” Allred told the FBI. Sex in the FLDS is meant for only one purpose — to produce children. It is sinful for a priesthood holder to derive pleasure from the sex act. Sex with multiple partners or someone of the same sex is strictly forbidden.
As he listened in, Allred said, he heard Jeffs say that “for any other man to be involved in what I’m doing, they will lose the priesthood, their family and their priesthood blessings, and they will be sent away.” Allred told agents he also heard Jeffs say that if other wives engaged in group sex, they also would be sent away.
Kathryn Nester, a federal public defender who represents lead defendant Lyle Jeffs in the food stamp case, called the statements about Warren Jeffs and sex “salacious.” She questioned why the government would raise them in a fraud case involving the prophet’s younger brothers.
But, the government countered, the prophet’s words betray a simple truth about today’s FLDS: The elite live by different rules.
Scallops and seed bearers
The first wives of two FLDS leaders are among those talking to the FBI. Charlene Jeffs divorced Lyle Jeffs last year; Joyce Wayman is one of church leader John Wayman’s six wives.
Both men have, at different times, enjoyed status as the bishop of Short Creek. But by the time they reached the top, their first wives had been pushed to the sidelines, no longer deemed “worthy.”
Charlene Jeffs was banished to a garage, and then a trailer, before she left the FLDS. She testified in Phoenix, and her statements also are being used in the food stamp case. Wayman, whose husband was among the FLDS leaders arrested and jailed last month, apparently has not yet left the sect, although her days in the FLDS may surely be numbered once her statement is known to sect leaders.
For years, the existence of “Seed Bearers,” an elite group of FLDS men tasked with impregnating the women, was just a rumor, a disturbing sign of how twisted things were getting inside the FLDS. The word was that the prophet planned to create a master race of spiritually superior children to greet the Lord on the day the world ends.
Charlene Jeffs first exposed the existence of the “Seed Bearers” during her divorce and custody battle. They are a group of about 15 men, hand-picked by the prophet. Wayman also spoke with the FBI about a friend’s experience with the Seed Bearers.
A visit from this spiritually superior stud team begins when a woman receives word from church leaders that “the time was right” for motherhood.
“Initially couples would be very excited by this, due to the ban on marital sex,” a summary of Wayman’s FBI interview states. “But three FLDS leaders showed up at their home wearing black hoods. One advised he was there to have sex with the wife and attempt to conceive a child.” The other two were present to bear witness and write everything down for posterity. The husband was invited to participate, but only as a spectator.
Wayman told the FBI that her friend pulled off the seed bearer’s hood, and refused to have sex with him. Not long afterward, she gathered up her children and left home for good.
Wayman has not seen her own husband in nearly three years. She is repenting from afar for sins that include “jealousy.” She told the FBI she believes all this shuffling of women and children is “because Warren and the FLDS church leaders wanted to exercise power, control and fear over the women.”
“I just know that we’re taught that loyalty is life,” Charlene Jeffs said. “Loyalty to God and the prophet is the first and foremost thing in your life. Anything else is just of the world and material and doesn’t matter. … Loyalty is life, and that is so drilled into you that even my brain is whack because of it.”
She recalls that when Lyle was named Bishop, he was suddenly flush with cash. “And our eating just exploded into something far beyond what I felt was humble,” she added. Suddenly there were feasts of shrimp and lobster and other “gourmet food we weren’t used to eating.”
When scallops suddenly appeared, they had to look up how to make them. “I remember pulling out a cookbook because we had scallops. Nobody knew how to do scallops, but scallops were bought. … So I cooked scallops and wow!”
After that, she said, scallops were “a thing.” But not for everyone. She said items often were set aside for the bishop’s family, and other witnesses recalled seeing carts and pallets loaded with meat, fish and turkeys not available to other FLDS families.
“And the waste that goes on with the bishop’s family is absolutely horrendous,” Charlene Jeffs said. “And it is sick. It should be stopped.” She spoke about the weekly ritual of cleaning out the family’s huge, walk-in refrigerator.
“And three five-gallon buckets of food that had gone bad was taken out to the animals.”
The bishop’s animals were eating better than some FLDS families.
Only an FLDS first wife has standing in the world of the outsiders. She is the legal wife; the others are recognized merely as “concubines.” They might have had a church wedding performed by the prophet, but after the children come, the outside world views them as unwed mothers.
That label, it turns out, would have value to the church. These mothers and their children qualify for public assistance, usually about $1,000 a month, making them useful tools for “bleeding the beast.”
“The conspiracy takes money for goods from people it was intended to sustain and converts it to funds used by their leaders to further illegal activities,” is how “the beast” described the scam in an indictment. “Because the funds for food are diverted to other purposes, hundreds of people — especially those disfavored by the elites — lack sufficient food.”
The beast does not see itself as the only victim. The government alleges that the true victims in this case are the “hundreds of people” — women and children of the FLDS — who are going hungry. The notion of charity, of looking out for those less fortunate, seems to be a foreign concept.
Nester, Lyle Jeffs’ attorney, declined CNN’s request for comment on the allegations. But the defense expects to vigorously challenge the statements of the former FLDS members at the hearing on Wednesday in federal court in Salt Lake City. Lyle Jeffs is appealing a magistrate’s order to keep him in jail as he awaits trial.
Wayman already has won his conditional freedom. His attorney, James Bradshaw, also declined comment. In court documents seeking his client’s release, Bradshaw acknowledged that food shortage in Short Creek is “very real.” But the government is misplacing the blame, he said.
The food stamp scheme didn’t create the shortage, Bradshaw asserted; instead, the FLDS lost control of thousands of acres of farmland after its trust, the United Effort Plan, was placed under a state-appointed receiver.
And, the court documents filed by Wayman’s defense assert that the United Order and Bishop’s storehouse aren’t recent additions. Some variation of the bishop’s storehouse, for example, has been used by the FLDS since 1942.
Food and other supplies are purchased in bulk and kept in the storehouse, a large warehouse surrounded by high walls and a gate, according to Julie Jeffs, who worked there and is a sister-in-law of the Jeffs brothers.
At the beginning of each month, when the food stamp cards are freshly loaded, the storehouse is well-stocked, witnesses told the FBI.
But by the end of the month, the shelves often are bare.
Shopping for her own family at the storehouse was “humiliating,” said Allene Jeffs Steed, the bishop’s cook. “For most members, there was not enough supply to meet the demand,” her FBI summary states. “Rice, cheese, yogurt, bread and onions were available, but meat and vegetables are almost impossible to get.”
At times, fights broke out in the aisles as women grappled over meat, cold cereal — and hairspray for the towering, sculpted hairstyles known as “plyg-dos.”
“If there was any hairspray, every woman in the community was in there fighting over it. It caused quite a bit of contention,” said Julie Jeffs, the storehouse floor manager.
“Storehouse workers would often put small quantities of meat on the shelves at various times of the day, trying to ration for those families that could not be at the storehouse when it first opened. A lot of people went without,” she added.
“If a person that was waiting proved too timid, they would not get any,” she said. At times, Julie was quick to wrap up a small serving of meat and hold it for someone she knew would otherwise lose out.
She described times when the shelves were picked clean of everything but home-canned goods of questionable age. “Much of it was not desirable and very old,” the FBI report says. “It got to the point where some people were forced to take the old canned goods; others were more picky and refused to eat the undesirable food.”
‘Hasta la vista’
Who would want to live under such conditions? Why would anyone stay?
For people born and raised in the FLDS, it’s all they know. If they break from the church they will be cut off from family members still inside. They will be shunned as “apostates.” They will lose everyone and everything, including their eternal salvation.
Joyce Wayman has been shuttled between the FLDS “houses of hiding,” which some members refer to as “houses of hostage” because the doors lock from the outside. She has been to Las Vegas, and in several houses in the St. George, Utah, area, as she “repents from afar.”
Even with her husband in jail, she refuses to quit. She’s making the FLDS kick her out. That way, she said, she has some hope of someday being reunited with her children.
Charlene Jeffs left — and not quietly. Her divorce and custody case were widely publicized. But she has friends still inside the FLDS. She told the FBI about one she would not identify. The woman is testing boundaries, she said. She is sneaking out into the world of the gentiles. Her husband doesn’t know.
“But she is waiting, just waiting for the right time to say ‘hasta la vista,'” Charlene Jeffs said. “She knows if she goes right now she will be deemed the wickedest thing in the whole wide world. And her family will have nothing to do with her ever again. What she is hoping is the feds will come in and nab him and haul him away. And then she can be released and go and gather up her children.”
In the past, prosecutions and court actions involving the FLDS have come in cycles, said Sam Brower, a private investigator who detailed how he helped countless people escape the sect in his best-selling book “Prophet’s Prey.”
Each time, outsiders assumed things would get better for the women and children inside.
“When Warren Jeffs made the 10 Most Wanted list, everybody thought, ‘Oh, Warren Jeffs is on the run. It will all be better,'” Brower said recently over lunch at the Merry Wives Café outside Hildale.
“Everybody thought, ‘If Warren Jeffs could just go to prison, it will all be better.'”
They hoped prison would loosen Jeffs’ hold on his followers, that ruddy-cheeked 12-year-olds wouldn’t be forced into “spiritual marriages” with old married men anymore.
Sure enough, according to the federal court documents, there hasn’t been a single FLDS wedding in nearly a decade.
But life has only gotten harder for many of the faithful.
The court cases are “definitely a step in the right direction in Short Creek’s evolution,” Brower said, “but there’s still a lot here.”
Nobody sees an end to the FLDS, of course, but change seems inevitable. What happens next is anybody’s guess.