Colorado City, Arizona. — Here in this stronghold of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, a power shift may be under way in the polygamist sect’s hierarchy.
It comes as FLDS leader Warren Jeffs apparently abdicated his role as a “prophet” in both a jailhouse conversation with one of his brothers and a note he tried to give to a judge in court last week. Both instances were corroborated by law enforcement sources who spoke to the Deseret Morning News on condition of anonymity.
Questions swirl around Jeffs’ health and mental state. In a court appearance last week, he appeared skeletal and lethargic. Defense attorneys would only say that he is “very frail.”
“I think his conscience is working on him,” said ex-FLDS member Richard Holm.
Jeffs, 51, is facing charges in St. George’s 5th District Court of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony. He is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. In Arizona, he is facing charges related to performing child-bride marriages. He was also recently indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Here in the FLDS communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., on Thursday, shopping continued at the local grocery store, children were seen happily playing outside their homes, and the sound of a dog barking drifted through the air.
Residents of both towns appeared oblivious to the news that Jeffs had apparently penned a note seen in court with the words, “I am not a prophet.” Several residents declined to speak to a reporter.
“People here do not take the paper, because they don’t believe what is being said about them in it,” said Hazel Zitting, who lives in the neighboring community of Centennial Park, Ariz., a separate fundamentalist community.
Faithful FLDS members are also told to shun media — including TV, radio and the Internet. But some of the community’s restrictions appear to be loosening.
FLDS members who once wouldn’t acknowledge the presence of family members and friends who had left the church are beginning to soften.
“Some people are even waving at us,” said Susie Timpson, who is with a pro-polygamy group in Centennial Park. “I’ve noticed a friendlier environment lately.”
Some observers say a change in power may be going on within the FLDS Church.
“I’m sure he (Jeffs) still has influence on the community,” Mohave County Attorney’s investigator Gary Engels told reporters outside of court last week.
Indeed, Holm said that Jeffs has not been abandoned by the faithful.
“Letters are still being written to Warren,” he said, recalling a recent conversation with one of his children who is still in the church. “I asked him about it. He said letters are still being written to Warren, and Lyle Jeffs picks them up.”
Lyle Jeffs is one of Warren Jeffs’ brothers and is believed to be an authority figure in the church.
Engels said he believes someone else beside Warren Jeffs is now conducting the church’s day-to-day business.
Several people may now be running the FLDS Church. Ex-members say photographs of Wendell Nielsen and William Timpson Jessop, leaders within the church, have appeared in FLDS members’ homes next to pictures of Warren Jeffs.
“There was kind of a power structure in place that was there while he (Jeffs) was on the run,” Holm said. “It doesn’t seem to be a lot different.”
Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed special fiduciary of the FLDS Church’s United Effort Plan Trust, said Thursday that he has been told Jeffs’ taped sermons, which members listen to, are being replaced by tapes of Nielsen.
Wisan told the Deseret Morning News that he has also started to see cooperation from FLDS members in privatizing and subdividing land controlled by the UEP Trust, the church’s financial arm. The cooperation is a distinctive difference from Jeffs’ edict of “say nothing, do nothing, sign nothing.”
Under Jeffs’ reign, men have been kicked out of the FLDS Church and told to “repent from a distance.” Their wives and children have been given to others.
Roger Hoole, a lawyer for some of the so-called ‘Lost Boys,’ teenagers who have been booted from the communities for some unnamed “sin,” hopes that any change in church leadership doesn’t create more problems.
“If these stories about Jeffs admitting he’s never been a prophet are accurate,” he said, “we would say, ‘Don’t just hitch your wagon to the next person who stands up and says he’s ordained of God to lead these people.”‘