Religious sect's outcasts caught between worlds

Associated Press/September 4, 2004
By Angie Wagner

Salt Lake City -- Damned by his religion, denied by his family and left with nowhere else to go, the teenager slept in a cold tool shed just steps from a company owned by his relatives.

They went home at night to warm, cozy beds while Tom Sam Steed stole bread, cereal and nutrition bars from a gas station just to survive. He tried, several times, to kill himself, convinced he was worth nothing.

His salvation came when he got a job cleaning carpets and finally left the control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, and its leader, Warren Jeffs.

Former members describe a religion that thrives on domination. Every detail of their lives was scripted - from plural marriages to what they could wear, who they could associate with and what job they could have.

In the past 4 1/2 years, more than 400 teenage boys have been excommunicated, many for seemingly minor infractions such as watching a movie or talking to a girl.

Former church members suspect something else is causing the banishment of young men. In a polygamous community, there are only so many women to go around. Older men don't want to compete with young men for wives. The boys have to go.

Now, they have been thrust into a society they have been taught is evil. They are homeless, uneducated, confused and unprepared for a world where they can make their own choices.

Sweaty and out of breath, four teenage boys barge into the kitchen for glasses of water after an exhausting game of basketball. They tease each other about who won, then stretch out on couches and chairs.

In many ways, they are just typical teenagers. They brag about souped-up cars, listen to rapper Eminem, admire supermodel Heidi Klum, have seen the "The Matrix" multiple times and want to go to college.

But ask them how many brothers and sisters they have and it's clear these teens have had unusual lives. Seventeen brothers and sisters for one, 21 for another. Another lost count after 300. Most of their fathers have at least two wives.

Almost all the 11 boys gathered this day grew up in the "creek" - the twin FLDS communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where most of the estimated 10,000 residents are church members, the largest polygamous group in the West. (Colorado City used to be called Short Creek.) Other boys lived in FLDS communities elsewhere in the West.

The FLDS is different from the mainstream Mormon church, which has disavowed polygamy and denounced the FLDS.

Living in the creek, along the Utah-Arizona border, means total submission to the church. Jeffs, whom many former members accuse of brainwashing, directs all parts of his members' lives. The church, through its charitable trust, owns the land its members built homes on, arranges marriages and requires members to wear long underwear under their clothes at all times.

Movies and television are banned. Basketball and football were taken away a few years ago, the boys say. Wives can be taken from their husbands and assigned to different men if the church orders it. Most members don't receive schooling past eighth grade.

"We're taught the only way into heaven is through this church," said Steed, whose friends call him T.S. "If you leave, that's worse than murder."

But this restricted life is the only one they have ever known.

Some boys ran away or left after a family member did, too. Others say they were ousted for violations such as wanting to go to public school.

Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney and spokesman for the church, denies that. Parker said it is hard to generalize about the boys, but said they are not involved with the church anymore because of the choices they have made.

"These people are minimizing the reasons for their not being part of the church anymore," he said. "They tend to be juvenile delinquents, they tend to have criminal problems, they have drug problems. They have all kinds of things going on with their lives that are incompatible with the church."

Once out of the creek, the boys mostly roamed southern Utah, living in flophouses or their cars, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, meeting up with other apostates or excommunicated members.

They can't return to their families because church members are forbidden from associating with apostates. Sometimes, parents secretly send money to their boys. But mostly they are on their own, homeless at 16 or 17, even as young as 13.

Three years ago, Shem Fischer and his brother, Dan Fischer, helped a few excommunicated boys find jobs and an education in Salt Lake City. Former FLDS members, the brothers knew the struggles the boys faced.

Dan Fischer, founder of a dental products manufacturer, never lived in the creek, but was once a believer and at one time had three wives. Shem Fischer grew up in the creek and left only three years ago at the age of 33.

He never had reason to question the church until he started working outside the community, doing sales and marketing for his family's cabinetry and interior design business.

The FLDS doesn't believe man landed on the moon. When Fischer learned the truth, he was embarrassed.

"It makes you really start questioning what else you've been duped on," he said.

After the brothers helped a few boys, they started getting calls about six months ago from others who had been kicked out and sometimes dropped off in nearby communities with just the clothes on their backs. Word got around that the brothers wanted to help, and soon more than 400 excommunicated boys had been identified.

"The older men don't want to compete with the young bucks. Sheer math will tell you a certain amount of them have to go," said Shem Fischer, who is related to several of the boys.

There were so many, a nonprofit foundation connected to Fischer's business couldn't support them all. Now the brothers have turned to the public for help with food, housing and mentors for the boys.

"I hope that they can see they are not trash. They are valuable human citizens," Shem Fischer said.

Sitting inside Dan Fischer's guest house, the boys compare stories on why they left or were banished and even joke about polygamy.

Sixteen-year-old Carl Ream said he wants only one wife because women are too expensive. His friends laugh.

They curse too much, make up silly nicknames for each other and play a fierce game of Hacky Sack.

But, when they are alone, they speak of a childhood stolen.

Steed, a tall and gangly 19-year-old with faraway eyes, was part of the FLDS church in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. He left the church at 15 when he was put on religious probation for watching a PG-13 movie.

But he still found himself drawn to the church and wanted to return.

His relatives wouldn't let him live with them because he wasn't in good standing with the church. He worked for his family's excavation company. At night, he says, he slept in a tool shed on the property.

When Steed later asked Jeffs if he could return to the church, he says Jeffs refused, telling him he will not be lifted up to heaven.

"That took all my hope, all my dreams away," he said.

Shem Fischer thinks that with jobs, four boys will be able to afford the $900-a-month rent of a small, four-bedroom house in Midvale. One boy works the evening shift at Wendy's, two others on construction jobs.

They aren't used to remembering when job interviews are or how to pay bills. They don't know how to mingle with people, and some struggle to talk to girls.

"You're taught that everyone out here is corrupt and evil," Steed said. "You have no idea how life works, no idea how to survive in modern society."

A therapist meets with some boys; some attend self-improvement classes. They are learning how to manage money and signing up to take the GED. Fischer evaluates them, asking about plans and if they want to go to college. He is working to match each boy with a mentor and find them places to live. For now, they live in hotels and in houses the Fischer brothers own.

Many are highly skilled in construction jobs, a main profession in the creek.

Six boys recently filed a conspiracy lawsuit against Jeffs and Sam Barlow, a former Mohave County deputy sheriff and close associate of Jeffs, accusing them of "systematic excommunication" of young men in order to reduce competition for wives. The lawsuit also accuses them of assault, terroristic threats and child kidnapping, allegations Parker denied and said were "sensationalist."

Efforts to reach church leaders were unsuccessful. Parker said they do not speak to reporters. A dispatcher for the Colorado City Police Department and town hall also said leaders do not speak to the media.

Utah and Arizona prosecutors have been investigating allegations of fraud, incest, child abuse and forced marriages of young girls.

Steed is already getting a new start. He recently traveled to Boulder, Colo., to visit his mentor, Jon Krakauer, author of the best-selling "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," a book about the FLDS church.

Krakauer has offered to help pay for Steed's education or help him open a carpet-cleaning business.

"Society doesn't pay any attention to this," said Krakauer, who spent years researching the FLDS community. "This is a scary culture. It's like having the Taliban right up the road from Vegas, and no one pays any notice. These kids don't know how to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The United States of America is not something that's revered."

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