Hildale, Utah -- As many as a thousand people may have been exiled by the Fundamentalist LDS Church under an edict by imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.
From his prison cell in Texas, Jeffs reportedly set a New Year's deadline for his faithful followers to be re-baptized into the faith or face excommunication. Over the weekend, hundreds of vehicles were seen parked at a meeting hall as well as schools in the community. Ex-members of the church and observers said it appeared it was where they learned if they remained in the church or were exiled.
"What's happened is Warren Jeffs has divided the community into at least two different groups, probably three," said private investigator Sam Brower, who works for attorneys suing the FLDS Church. He photographed hundreds of people going into the meetings.
The majority remained in the FLDS Church, ex-member Isaac Wyler told FOX 13. Another group, believed to be comprised of nearly 1,000 individuals were told they must atone by "yearning for Zion," but were not allowed to attend church services.
"They were told to repent," Wyler said, adding that they could still tithe to the church.
Others were excommunicated from the church entirely. Brower said that in some cases, entire families were split apart.
"I talked to one guy that was kicked out," he said. "The church officials showed up at his door at three o'clock in the morning, removed his wife and ten children. To say it was heartbreaking was an understatement."
Ex-members who left the FLDS Church have expressed concern for family members who remain devoted to Jeffs.
"I don't know what to foresee down there," said Holden Barlow, who has eight mothers and 55 siblings still in the FLDS Church. "I foresee many more problems, yes, but no one knows how to handle it."
Barlow said two of his sisters are married to Jeffs, who is in a Texas prison serving a life plus 20 year sentence for child sex assault related to underage marriages. He said with recent restrictions being placed by Jeffs on his followers, he's had some contact him seeking assistance leaving the FLDS.
"I've been able to not only see my family members, see them come out, make some developments, start school, start following their dreams instead of doing what they're told to," Barlow said.
Ex-members said Jeffs recently told followers to give more to the church, including having children give up toys. Sexual relations between husbands and wives have reportedly been banned, except for the purposes of having a child with approval from church leaders.
Many who choose to leave the FLDS Church often leave without anything. The FLDS Church lives under the concept of a "united order," where property is commonly owned and members' needs are distributed by the church. The land in Hildale and neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., is in a communally owned trust that was taken over by the Utah courts in 2005 amid allegations that Jeffs and other FLDS leaders mismanaged it.
The United Effort Plan Trust is under court control, managed by an accountant appointed by a judge to oversee it. The court-appointed special fiduciary told FOX 13 on Monday that he was concerned that FLDS leaders might try to force exiled members from their homes.
"We'd like to see families stay together. We'd like to see people living there in the houses. They do not have to leave," Bruce Wisan said. "I'd like to get the word out that if the church says you have to leave the community, you don't. The church does not control the real estate."
Non-profit groups that work with those in the polygamous communities said they had seen an increase in calls from people seeking assistance. Tonia Tewell of the group Holding Out Help said she was trying to line up housing for a predicted exodus of people. She was also collecting donations to bring to people who chose to stay in Hildale and Colorado City, but may not have access to services without the church.
More information on that can be found at the websites holdingouthelp.org and at the Family Support Center, which administers the Safety Net program at http://www.familysupportcenter.org/safetyNet.php