For the FLDS faithful, Warren Jeffs' trial brings a choice

The Salt Lake Tribune/July 23, 2011

Whether or not Warren Jeffs is found guilty in Texas, his true fate will arguably be decided by the 10,000 or more people spread over at least five states and two countries who believe he is a prophet of God.

Authorities predicted Jeffs' power would crumble five years ago, when he was arrested on criminal charges in Utah. But even now, as he has spent more of his nine years of leadership imprisoned than free, most Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints people seem to have remained faithful to him.

This year, the 55-year-old Jeffs has received thousands of letters from followers, led Sunday sermons over the phone, and, most spectacularly, has excommunicated dozens of men, forcing them to leave their homes and families — all from his Texas jail cell.

If they believe in him, it seems, he doesn't need to be free.

But that could change as allegations are exposed in Jeffs's upcoming trial. Former FLDS spokesman Willie R. Jessop said his own knowledge of the evidence gathered during a massive 2008 raid on the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch led him to conclude Jeffs was "morally indefensible," and break from the leadership earlier this year.

"I don't believe that any members of the church would condone what Warren was doing in secret," he said. "The challenge they have is coming to grips with the reality that was brought about by the raid."

And now there is a rival prophet. Former high-ranking elder William E. Jessop (a distant cousin to the former spokesman) emerged this year after some four years in hiding to claim he should be the leader, igniting an increasingly heated struggle for control.

William E. Jessop, 41, started his battle at the state government, filing paperwork in March to take control of the FLDS corporate entity — a position traditionally held by the church prophet. His claim rests on taped jailhouse conversations from 2007 between Jeffs and his brother Nephi in which Jeffs renounces his role and names William E. Jessop as the true prophet.

After staking his claim, William E. Jessop started holding Sunday sessions in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hidale, Utah. Some 200 people have been attending, and the numbers are growing, said community resident Isaac Wyler, a former member of the church.

Allegations and evidence coming out of Jeffs trial could increase those numbers, he said.

"I think the people who are already asking questions now, it could be the kicker that causes them to go ahead and leave," he said.

But according to William E. Jessop's filings with the state, people are being deterred from asking those questions with a ban on Internet usage — barring them from seeing the taped jailhouse conversation on YouTube.

"They're clamping down, you can sense the desperation in the leadership as Warren's trial comes closer and closer," said Sam Brower, a private investigator who has spent seven years looking into the sect. He's not necessarily convinced that William E. Jessop is the best alternative.

"Why didn't he come out a long time ago?" Brower said. Though, "I do think he's better than Warren."

Born William Timpson, William E. took the last name Jessop after he was adopted by Fred Jessop, the longtime bishop of Hildale and Colorado City, historically known as Short Creek.

He wasn't always at odds with Jeffs. At one time, his portrait hung next to the leader's in a place of honor in every FLDS home after he became Jeffs' handpicked replacement for his adoptive father as patriarch of Short Creek in 2004.

But later that year, William E. Jessop disappeared from the community. Still acting as bishop from afar, he lived in South Dakota and Colorado until he got a fateful phone call in January 2007.

From his jail cell in Southern Utah, Warren Jeffs called himself "one of the most wicked men on the face of the earth since the days of Father Adam," according to a recording released by jail officials. Jeffs said he was not the prophet and named William E. Jessop in his place.

Weakened by extended fasting and long periods spent on his knees praying, Jeffs would attempt suicide days later.

William E. Jessop, meanwhile, set to work welcoming back men who had been excommunicated from the sect, according to Willie R. Jessop. But before he went public with his new role, Jeffs changed his mind. Possibly convinced by his brothers and supporters, he apparently decided he was, in fact, the prophet.

William E. Jessop was then cast out and went into hiding, not to emerge until this year.

He may be slowly gaining supporters, but the church leaders who support Jeffs are pushing back. And Jeffs is no longer the weakened man who relinquished his role as prophet four years ago. Texas jailers say he is eating well and healthy.

Jeffs's trial, however, will likely expose evidence and allegations of at least 10 marriages to underage girls, leaving his followers with a choice: Stay or go.

But for those who have grown up in the faith, choosing to separate from Jeffs is a long, painful process, said Willie R. Jessop.And they're not sure they can trust evidence coming from the same authorities who removed women from their homes and separated them from their children during the raid.

"The church is going through some of the darkest days since its very existence," he said. "It has to come to grips with the conditions of what took place in secret with its leader."

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