Six months ago Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), was hospitalized in critical condition, prompting speculation both inside and outside the breakaway Mormon sect about his survival and his successor. Now, thanks to the care he received during a medically induced coma, Jeffs has returned to health and to his cell inside a Palestine, Texas, prison where he appears to be in full command of his flock, issuing a barrage of revelations and edicts. Among them are orders to take away children's bicycles and to build a massive, amphitheater-like structure on the sect's West Texas ranch, all in preparation for doomsday.
Convicted of sexual assault in early August, 2011, Jeffs fasted and spent extended time on his knees praying during his trial, leading to his physical collapse 20 days after the verdict. His official Texas-prison mug shot shows an emaciated, hollow-cheeked man with close-cropped hair and piercing eyes. Gone was the tall, lanky, wavy-haired man seen kissing his teenage bride draped in his lap, as depicted in a photograph submitted during his West Texas trial. But while his criminal trials and his self-imposed afflictions have savaged his appearance, they appear not to have diminished his sense of purpose.
Jeffs spends 23 hours a day in his East Texas cell under protective custody; that means he shares no facilities and has no contact with other prisoners. He leaves his cell only for an hour's daily exercise either inside or out, depending on the weather, in a small space where even the basketball hoop is subject to prison rules (it has no net attached to the ring). He may leave his cell to shower, or talk on the telephone for no more than 15 minutes at a time for a total of 240 minutes a month to an approved list of 10 friends or relatives. All calls must be to a personal landline number, not a business one, and calls may not be forwarded. Jeffs also has a typewriter, according to Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), plus access to a radio, but no television since TV sets are housed in common areas where prisoners mingle. He can receive books and magazines through the mail or by request from the prison library.
Despite this constrained life, Jeffs has managed to maintain control over the FLDS, primarily by communicating via phone and letters with his lieutenants. But on Christmas Day, according to Lyons, Jeffs violated the TDCJ's rules and spoke to his followers over a speakerphone — conference calls are forbidden under the rules and the use of the speakerphone was considered "conferencing," Lyons said. Following an investigation, Jeffs lost his telephone privileges for 90 days.
But the silencing of his spoken word has not stopped Jeffs' campaign to cleanse the 100-year-old church in preparation for leading the chosen few through the final days. Unless he and the other imprisoned FLDS members are released, Jeffs has warned in a barrage of letters sent to numerous federal, state and local officials, the world will suffer a plague of earthquakes, tidal waves and huge fires. In late January, the FLDS took out quarter-page ads in a number of newspapers, including national publications like the New York Times and Washington Post, titled: "Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ Given to President Warren S. Jeffs." It promised a "full humbling" for all people. To get a detailed picture of the revelations, readers were urged to fill out the ad's order form and send in $2 to $10, depending on the number of revelations requested.
Jeffs' primary message is that the end of the world is imminent, according to Sam Brower, a Cedar City, Utah, private investigator and author who is a longtime observer and expert on the FLDS church. "He is setting up for the end of the world," Brower says. "He has divided the community into two groups, the elites and the repentance group, and they are in a competition to be the most obedient." Followers have been instructed to prove their allegiance by contributing $5,000 each to the church and reaffirming their faith by way of loyalty oaths. Even FLDS children have been included in the edicts. After Jeffs ordered them to give up their bicycles and trampolines, a Salt Lake Tribune reporter observed hundred of children's bikes for sale along the side of the highway that cuts through the twin FLDS communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the area referred to by the FLDS as Short Creek. Brower says Jeffs had banned toys as "idolatrous" at the Texas ranch, but now has extended that ban to Short Creek. "He has removed any joy in the life of those people," Brower says. "He has taken away toys. There are no sports, no radio, no TV, no Internet. He has removed any diversions so they can focus on his revelations and the end of the world."
"The reason he does it is because he can," Brower says. "He's a really sick human being." As he watched the FLDS self-proclaimed prophet during the trial, Brower says he realized Jeffs had reached a critical point in his reign of madness. "He wasn't interested in getting out. He didn't put up a fight because that would have exposed him ... Now, he's this kind of god-man who is being a martyr in a jail cell in Texas." At Jeffs' direction, members of the repentance group who have deemed less worthy are meeting at old shuttered schoolhouses in Short Creek, Brower says, where they listen to Jeffs' teachings and heed his admonitions. Many have been forbidden sexual contact with their wives and some have been separated from their families, Brower says, and are being told sex is a "priesthood ordinance," something that will be monitored and controlled by Jeffs through his lieutenants. "He has created more sadness and broken up more families now he is behind bars," Brower says.
But one of the most dramatic signs of Jeffs' prophesy that the end is nigh is rising out of the rugged West Texas scrubland on the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch outside Eldorado, the site of the 2008 raid by Texas Rangers and child-welfare officials that resulted in a series of trials of FLDS men charged with sexual assault and bigamy. A large semicircular amphitheater, almost 300 ft. wide, is under construction on the ranch, according to judge James Doyle, Schleicher County's justice of the peace. The structure is about 40 ft. tall and appears to have stadium-style platforms rising to the rim, which has curious blue tubes erupting from its surface. Brower says the structure echoes, in some ways, the Visitors Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Salt Lake City, which features a circular structure dominated by a statue of Christ. Jeffs, according to Brower, often "parrots" the LDS church, which excommunicated the FLDS followers in the 19th century when they insisted on practicing polygamy.
Judge Doyle, a pilot, has kept track of the various construction projects on the ranch over the years, and he and his son have shot numerous aerial photographs of the various large homes, dairy, gardens and other facilities on the site. The largest YFZ Ranch structure is the temple, site of Jeffs' marriages. It is unclear if the temple is still in use, Doyle says, and there are reports the FLDS considers it to be desecrated following the raid. This latest construction has him puzzled. "They have poured a gazillion yards of concrete," Doyle says, noting that most of the construction has been in flagrant violation of state environmental laws — no retention walls to control silt runoff are in place and there are rock-crushing machines on site that are likely to violate air-quality rules. "They don't abide by the laws," Doyle tells TIME. "They're just outlaws."
Observers familiar with FLDS activities believe Jeffs has issued a call for the faithful to be rebaptized. Brower says there is evidence of a large baptismal font being built in Short Creek where some 15,000 of Jeffs' followers live, while Eldorado is awash in rumors and speculation that the new amphitheater will also serve as a baptismal site. The site also is crisscrossed with several large ditches that contain large, 48-in. pipes, odd in the dry West Texas landscape that has been in a severe drought. "It looks like some kind of ceremonial building," Doyle says, and he adds that there are local reports that a 30 ft.-high, gold-colored statue of Jeffs with one hand holding the hand of a young girl and other grasping a biblical text will be incorporated into the site. Doyle said many of the local residents find that imagery repulsive, given the evidence at the FLDS trials — the prosecution alleged Jeffs had 78 marriages, many of them to underage girls.
The greatest fear, Doyle says, is that "there will be a Jim Jones–like thing out there," referring to the mass suicide in 1978 at the Peoples Temple in Guyana. Suicide is taboo in the FLDS, but Brower believes Jeffs has shattered other taboos in the past. For example, he married his father's wives and the alleged erection of the large statue in his image would be an idolatrous act by a man who came to the leadership by attacking old leaders of the church for setting up an "idolatrous" historical monument. "He has done other things that were against their beliefs and culture — he's famous for that," Brower says. Procreation and death are two things in "God's territory," Brower adds, adding that Jeffs has exercised his dominion of the first and may be poised to control the second.
Jeffs' intentions are wrapped in mystery, but his rambling revelations clearly vilify those outside the FLDS community and warn of doom. Interaction between believers at the ranch and residents of Eldorado is limited, Doyle says. Few of the estimated 1,000 FLDS members shop in Eldorado, except for an occasional visit to a mechanic's shop for a part, or to pay a traffic ticket. "They always pay in cash," the judge notes. Movement in and out of the site is by bus for women and children, while the group's leaders drive large, expensive SUVs. While the FLDS members have registered to vote in the sparsely populated county, necessitating a redrawing of precinct lines, Doyle says, they have not asserted themselves at the ballot box, but county commissioners continue to be bombarded by mail containing Jeffs' revelations.
Jeffs could return to Eldorado in late 2012 to face bigamy charges, but for now life at the Schleicher County courthouse and jail are back to normal. Jailers, Doyle notes, had to treat a stubborn infection on Jeffs' foot during his trial, caused by constant pacing in his cell. The trial for the 11th FLDS man to face charges stemming from the raid, 71-year-old Wendell Loy Nielsen, has been moved to Midland, 150 miles to the northwest. Nielsen is charged with three counts of bigamy, a third-degree felony that could net him 10 years in prison. As for Jeffs, he will not be eligible for release from his East Texas cell until July 2038 as he approaches his 93rd birthday.