With Jeffs in prison, non-profits see small exodus from FLDS faith

KSTU-TV Fox News/October 13, 2011

St. George -- A 25-year-old woman married to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs who left the polygamous church under police escort is not the only one to leave the faith recently, FOX 13 News has learned.

Non-profit groups that help those transitioning from the closed polygamous societies said Wednesday that they have seen a small, but steady exodus of people leaving the FLDS Church.

"It's not only individuals, but we're having entire families leaving," said Tonia Tewell, the executive director of the group Holding Out Help. "We've probably quadrupled in the last two months."

Some attribute it to Jeffs being imprisoned in Texas for life for child sex assault, and a leadership dispute over the FLDS Church itself. Tewell said others cite the rigid demands of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is taxing once-faithful members of the flock.

"The last young man that came to us, he was listening to country music," she said. "And that is why they said, 'You either have to give up your music or you have the choice to leave.' "

The young man left, Tewell said, and was placed with a family through her organization.

Non-profit organizations, who have run on shoestring budgets, fear the increasing numbers of people leaving the FLDS faith will stretch their already thin resources. Tewell said she would not turn anyone away who sought help.

"We want to be prepared in case there's a mass leaving from those communities. We want to be able to offer them assistance and resources whenever possible," said Mike Leetham, the administrator of the Safety Net Committee, a coalition of government agencies, social service groups and representatives of fundamentalist Mormon communities.

The Safety Net Committee said that in the past two years, it had provided some form of assistance for about 1,000 people. That included simple requests such as job referrals, counseling or shelter assistance. About 250 people have been directly helped within the past year for child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence.

As for the woman who left Hildale on Monday, Washington County Sheriff's deputies said she was being sheltered. Sources told FOX 13 the woman is one of Jeffs' estimated 80 wives. She initially sought help leaving from ex-FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop. Sheriff's deputies became involved and extracted her from the community at her request.

As one of Jeffs' wives, she could be a powerful witness to any future investigations into Jeffs and the FLDS Church. However, detectives were waiting to question her, Det. Nate Abbott said. Washington County prosecutors said they would investigate the circumstances surrounding her leaving the church and whether she had information about any other crimes.

"We're following up," Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap told FOX 13. "We'll conduct an investigation and follow it wherever it leads us."

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