This is the first of a two-part series on the FLDS. The second part will be published on March 17.
HILDALE, Utah — “I finally heard about this thing called Facebook, like, a year ago. I had no idea what it was,” says 22-year-old Brigham Johnson, rubbing his neat beard nervously.
He’s embarrassed it took him so long to stumble upon the social-media site. But when he finally did, it was life changing.
“I sneaked a look on a computer, even though that was forbidden, and I found some old friends who’d got out. I was, like, ‘Wow, they’ve been living here in town all this time.’ That’s when I knew I could leave,” he says.
So he packed a bag one midnight in May 2013 and told his brother he was leaving. Then he walked out on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the outlaw religion he was born into in a remote town on the Utah-Arizona border.
A secretive group who broke with Mormonism in order to practice polygamy, the FLDS became notorious for child abuse under its repressive leader, the pedophile “prophet” Warren Jeffs. Now serving life in state prison in Palestine, Texas, for aggravated sexual assault of minors, Jeffs continues to exert astonishing power over his flock from behind bars.
It was only in his late teens that Johnson began to have doubts about Jeffs and his teachings and researched him on an illicit phone with access to the Internet. When he learned that Jeffs had been convicted of raping girls as young as 12 during secret group-sex rituals in an FLDS temple, his gut wrenched. Johnson had helped to build that temple in the desert near the one-horse town of Eldorado when he was 14.
“Learning the truth hurt so bad,” he says.
Johnson knew others who had left, including his brother, but had no contact information for them — until he found Facebook.
Now, after two years of casual jobs in California, Kansas and Wyoming, he is a construction worker in Salt Lake City and sharing his story at a clandestine meeting in the remote settlement where he grew up. The 10 former church members in attendance have gathered on shabby sofas in a little community center in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. They straddle the state border and are often referred to by locals by the old settlement name of Short Creek or “the Crick.”
Johnson’s audience is among hundreds of disillusioned followers who are believed to be abandoning Jeffs and the religion. Some have found new ways of getting out, such as connecting with others on the outside via social media. Others are seeking shelter in an expanding network of safe houses, where volunteers take the escapees into their own homes in an echo of the historic Underground Railroad, which once helped slaves to flee. While the departures are weakening the religion from the inside, it is also under external pressure in the form of a federal lawsuit that is set to reach court this year, which some believe will deliver a lethal blow to the sect.
“Sites like Facebook and Snapchat have become the new highway for those leaving so they can reconnect with ex-members. It’s easier to leave now than when I ran away 10 years ago and had no idea where I was going,” says Elissa Wall, who fled after Jeffs forced her to marry her first cousin when she was 14. Now, Wall helps others get out. Outsiders like her sometimes smuggle smartphones into the community to help people search the Internet.
There are no official statistics, but Sam Brower, a Utah-based private investigator who has worked on local and federal probes into the FLDS, says that more are leaving “than we have seen for many years.” He believes that between 500 and 1,000 members have left in the last one to two years and around 10,000 remain, mostly in Short Creek, with others scattered in small groups elsewhere.
For the past two years, the Department of Justice has been conducting a civil-rights investigation into the Short Creek settlement, accusing the FLDS of running the town as a corrupt theocracy, enforced by a dishonest police department.
“It is my understanding that it will go to trial … in federal court in Prescott, Ariz. I think the feds have a strong case,” says Gary Engels, a retired investigator with the Mohave County District Attorney’s office who was instrumental in getting Warren Jeffs onto the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 2005.
Jeffs’ incarceration may have curbed the worst of the child abuse, but deep concerns linger about the sect. If the government wins the case it could lead to the church losing control of the town, where the mayors of both Hildale and Colorado City and members of their town councils are FLDS. In the federal lawsuit, even the local utility companies and the police department, known as the marshal’s office, are accused of answering to the church and discriminating against ex-FLDS and nonbelievers. With a government victory, local county authorities would assume municipal and law-enforcement duties and the FLDS would face heavy fines.
Blake Hamilton is a Salt Lake City lawyer defending Hildale and the utility companies against the DOJ lawsuit. “This case needs to be about whether the activities of law enforcement, etc., are equitable or discriminatory,” he says. “It does not need to be about Warren Jeffs or the FLDS church and their religious practices. ... Even if it’s not a popular religion, we have First Amendment protections and people would agree they would not want to be singled out for their religion.”
The FLDS did not respond to a written request for comment sent to Lyle Jeffs.
Brower welcomes the DOJ action. He has long been frustrated that elected officials, despite their tough talk, have not done more to clean out Short Creek, which he calls “the most lawless town in America.” Child abuse and polygamy have long thrived here; the church is accused of encouraging welfare fraud and tax evasion by authorities in Utah and Arizona; and some members use child labor in their businesses, all with minimal interference from the authorities.
In 2008, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said that polygamist groups like the FLDS operate as “a form of organized crime” largely untouched by law enforcement. He accused them of using religion to conceal bigamy, child abuse, statutory rape, welfare fraud, tax evasion and “massive corruption,” as well as “strong-arm tactics” to control their people. But Reid’s effort to create a federal task force to crack down on the violations failed, and the current DOJ lawsuit does not address these issues directly. Still, if successful, it could effectively cripple the church’s control of the community.
The FLDS is also being investigated by the Department of Labor in an attempt to root out the allegedly widespread use of child labor.
Outside the community center where Brigham Johnson and his cohorts are meeting, there is no outward sign of turmoil in the sprawling, largely residential town. The streets feature unusually large houses, designed for polygamous families. When approached, residents stonily refuse to talk to “outsiders.”
They wear FLDS garb — prairie dresses in pastel colors for the women and girls, their hair in coiffed French braids, and for the men and boys, jeans and long-sleeved shirts, firmly buttoned down at the cuffs.
The town backs up to vermillion-hued sandstone cliffs that are spectacular at sunrise and sunset. But in all other directions the arid wilderness stretches for miles without another building in sight.
Almost a century ago, members of the FLDS began settling here because of its secluded location. They had been part of the original Mormon religion, which came into being in the United States in the 19th century. But in 1890, the federal government demanded that the Mormons outlaw polygamy in order for the territory of Utah, where they had settled, to be granted statehood. Purists who disagreed with the ban on their sacred practice broke away and formed splinter groups, calling themselves fundamentalists.
The Mormons are otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS, while the most well-known rebel group became known as the FLDS. Even though the two sides disowned each other at the time of the split and continue to reject each other today, they both revere Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith (a dedicated polygamist) and study his sacred texts, including the Book of Mormon.
While the LDS expanded across the world in the 20th century and moved closer to the mainstream, the FLDS did the opposite, consolidating around a small, hard-core group that preferred isolation and the religious extreme.
Today, the church elite in Short Creek, consisting of Warren Jeffs’ brothers Lyle and Nephi, among other chosen lieutenants, live inside a high-walled compound with security gates impenetrable to outsiders and even to lower-ranked church members.
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