Life on the run

Salt Lake Tribune/May 4, 2007
By Brooke Adams

Wendell Musser served in Warren Jeffs' inner circle, working as a courier and family caretaker for wives of the fugitive polygamous sect leader. Musser's clandestine "mission" had a story line drawn from a spy novel. There were midnight rides to secret locations; shifting hideouts; disposable phones; high-tech tracking equipment; a fleet of expensive vehicles; disguises.

There was a subplot, too: An apocalyptic claim that the devil was raging, the Second Coming near, yet Jeffs would survive it all.

Musser's account of his months in hiding, also laid out in a new lawsuit, discloses for the first time how Jeffs lived while on the lam.

He also sheds light on how Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, used his unchallenged power to dictate the lives of his followers.

Musser was just 21 when Jeffs called him to help look after his "spiritual wives." Over those months, Musser stifled his uneasiness while struggling with the pressure.

Last June, he made one mistake, and Jeffs exacted the most severe punishment. In an instant, those Musser loved most _ his wife, Vivian, and 1-year-old son, Levi _ vanished. He was cast off.

But Musser refuses to quietly walk away, as so many men have done. Musser's lawsuit, submitted last month, charges Jeffs with interfering with his parental rights and with alienation of affection.

Musser was born and raised in "Short Creek," as the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., were once known.

He is a great-grandson of Joseph Musser, an early fundamentalist Mormon leader, and grandson of deceased FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs, Warren's father.

"I've had a really, really good reputation out there for a few years," said Musser, who has 45 siblings.

His problems began in November 2005 when he got a call from Jeffs whose own problems were compounding. He had been an FBI "Wanted" fugitive since August, after a Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury indictment on felony sex-crime charges for conducting underage marriages.

A Utah court had taken over the $111 million property trust Jeffs once ran. Two civil lawsuits accused the sect leader of mistreatment and abuse.

And just a month earlier, couriers Seth Jeffs, his brother, and Nathaniel Allred had been arrested in Pueblo, Colo., cracking the secrecy surrounding Jeffs.

A search of their vehicle turned up cash, documents and letters, much of it intended for the fugitive sect leader.

In that November phone call, Jeffs blamed his brother's arrest on Allred's faithlessness.

"I could tell it was a shock to him," he said. "But he told me the reason that happened was because (Allred) feared."

Jeffs told Musser to wrap up his job as an installer for Redstone Surfaces and prepare to go into hiding at a moment's notice.

Jeffs called again a month later. He informed Musser the couple had "qualified" for their mission, which would involve caring for his family.

They would be leaving that night, Jeffs said. He did not disclose where they were going.

Tom Cox and Nephi Allred, FLDS high priests, picked up the young family at 2 a.m. Thus began a 19-hour journey that included stops only for fuel and ended at a home in Williamsburg, Colo., pop. 753, located about 30 miles west of Pueblo.

The road-weary travelers entered a dark home that was furnished with a couple of beds but little else.

That night, the three men visited a Wal-Mart where they bought several prepaid cell phones whose numbers were passed to Jeffs.

Jeffs called the next day. He told Musser that some of his wives would soon arrive and explained he was to set up the home, do the shopping, run errands and "pretty much be a father figure and take care of them" _ all funded by FLDS tithes.

Musser said numerous caretakers like himself ran safe houses for Jeffs' family. He estimates that Jeffs has around 180 wives, most believed to be wives only in a spiritual sense.

A day later, eight or nine women arrived. They ranged in age from 28 to 30, Musser said. Just one had a child, from whom she had been separated.

Over the next months, wives and some of Jeffs' daughters rotated in and out of the three homes Musser oversaw.

Jeffs visited occasionally and at one point brought with him a black briefcase, in which he had a tape recorder and laptop computer. He gathered the names of those at the home, asked a few questions and sat "staring at us for a long time," Musser said.

Then he launched into a teaching focused on revelations.

Jeffs told the wives to prepare to meet Rulon in a sacred place. He warned that Short Creek had been rejected, the devil was raging and time for redemption was short.

Afterward, he visited privately with a couple of the wives.

To Musser, there seemed no way out of this life, no escape from this mission in "nowhere land, doing nothing."

Still, he would try to "keep sweet," as the FLDS have been taught for decades.

But at the end of June, it all fell apart.

Musser was headed home from a weeklong trip to Utah and Wyoming, where he had delivered envelopes, exchanged sewing machines and taken care of other business for Jeffs.

He stopped, alone, in Colorado Springs for a few drinks, which was something he and Vivian did periodically throughout their marriage. Shortly after, he was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence.

The officers took note of the Hildale address on Musser's driver license and the GPS equipment in his vehicle. He was questioned at length about Jeffs, but Musser denied knowing anything about him.

Two days later, he was released and immediately called Nephi Allred to let him know what had happened.

Musser was told to dump his GPS unit and his phones; he agreed to wait a few days before returning to Westcliffe to avoid being followed.

He expected Jeffs to chastise him; he hoped to then be released from his mission with his family.

As he pulled up to the cabin, Musser saw the fence was gone. Dread set in.

When a stranger answered his knock at the door, Musser asked for Lee Steed, who had been in charge of securing the Colorado properties.

The man said Steed had moved and left no forwarding information.

Musser placed desperate calls to his father, to Lyle Jeffs and to Nephi Allred, all of whom gave him the same message: Go back to Utah, write a confession, do what the prophet says.

Lyle Jeffs told Musser his family had been turned over to the bishop. "They are no longer yours," Musser recalled Lyle Jeffs saying.

Not long after Musser abandoned his search, Jeffs was arrested while traveling Interstate 15 outside Las Vegas. Jeffs' capture gave Musser hope that he might soon reconnect with his family.

But birthdays and anniversaries have passed and Musser, now 22, has no idea where Vivian, 20, or Levi are. He believes they, like all those spiritual wives, remain in hiding.

He has filed missing person reports, written to Jeffs asking for help and now is pinning hopes on his lawsuit.

"I want Warren to realize that they can't do that to people," he said.

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