Polygamist Cult Found Guilty of Violating Civil Rights

Federal court verdict that FLDS officials discriminated against non-believers could be a final blow for the mormon sect

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Warren Jeff; FLDS; polygamy; Lawsuit; Colorado City; Hilldale
FLDS head Warren Jeffs held authoritarian control over the last theocracy in the U.S. Trent Nelson/AP

The end has always held particular fascination for Warren Jeffs.

Even before he proclaimed himself prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 10,000 strong polygamist cult in southern Utah, he envisioned the end of the world, relating to his followers terrifying visions of plagues, pestilence and Jesus descending in red robes of vengeance.

The end may have finally come for Jeffs and his flock, just not in the way any of them imagined. This afternoon at a federal courthouse in Phoenix, a jury returned a guilty verdict against Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah — the two towns that make up the fundamentalist Mormon community of Short Creek — finding that city officials there have engaged in a pattern of discrimination against non-believers, denying them building permits, police protection and water hookups for years. The verdict comes after a three year investigation by the Department of Justice and nearly seven weeks of testimony, during which former members testified that Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for multiple convictions of child rape, still runs the church and that under his orders FLDS leaders and city officials conspired to push "apostates" out of town, at times using the town marshals as a de facto enforcement arm of the church.

With the verdict in hand, criminal charges against high ranking FLDS leadership are likely to follow and both towns could go into receivership, or temporary federal or state control. The mayors may be dismissed. The town marshals offices could be disbanded. The last theocracy in America will be no more.

But is it the end of the FLDS?

Maybe, says Isaac Wyler, a former member who testified in the trial for the Department of Justice and still lives in Short Creek, and maybe not. "This is huge, it really cripples them, but I don't know if it's the end," he says.

The verdict comes at a time in which the FLDS faces existential threats, seemingly from all sides. A week before the jury began deliberations in Phoenix, the FBI raided church controlled businesses in Short Creek, removing boxes of evidence they say implicates sect leaders in large scale welfare fraud and money laundering, in which they used millions of dollars in food stamps to cover church expenses. While the raid was underway, federal agents 400 miles north in Salt Lake City were arresting top FLDS leadership, including Warren Jeffs' brother Lyle, who runs Short Creek in his brother's absence. By the end of the day, the U.S. Attorney in Utah had announced the indictments of 11 top leaders, eventually bringing all of them in to custody. If the FLDS was the mob, an apt comparison according to some former members, the feds had nabbed all the capos and generals on the same day.

Which leads to the following question: Why now? The crimes that appear to be the undoing of the church — underage marriages, tax evasion, welfare fraud, child labor — have been well known to law enforcement in Utah and Arizona for at least a decade, if not longer. But other than a raid on Short Creek in 1953, both states have more or less looked the other way.

Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah who has studied the FLDS, says it's partly because of the political blowback caused by the 1953 raid, when Arizona law enforcement took 263 children into custody and arrested every polygamist in town. Pictures of children crying as they were separated from their mothers sparked outcry across the country and ultimately cost then Arizona Governor Howard Pyle reelection.

"Ever since then they've been able to hide under the banner of religious freedom, and law enforcement has turned a blind eye," says Sam Brower, a private investigator who wrote a book about his years investigating the cult called Prophet's Prey. "In some ways, leaving them alone helped create what we're seeing now."

Eventually, the crimes the FLDS leaders were committing could no longer be ignored, Guoria says, especially after Warren Jeffs took over in the late 90s and the sect took a dark turn, increasing the practice of underage marriage, banishing teenage boys for perceived sins and "bleeding the beast" of government through welfare fraud and tax evasion.

"It takes a long time to build these cases," Guiora says. "You have to have people who are willing to talk, but I know that for years there were people talking, and they couldn't get law enforcement to listen."

Flora Jessop was one of the first to leave the community and speak out about what was happening. She left in 1986, and over the years ran a sort of underground railroad out of Short Creek, helping over 100 women escape. Like Guiora, she says that former FLDS members complained for years to law enforcement to no avail. "We're so happy that this is finally happening, but women have been coming out of this cult for 20 years and no one would believe them because they were women," she says. "They treated us like bitter ex wives. Once the men started leaving and talking, then they listened and started building cases."

Jessop says that in her day, new brides were given a pamphlet called "The Coming Crisis." It warned that the government would go after the FLDS, but that if women left and talked to police, no one would believe their stories. "'Women won't be believed, because people don't believe women,' that's what they told us," Jessop says. "The way this has all worked out has just reinforced that idea. So it's frustrating it's taken this long. It's kind of a slap in the face."

So what happens to the FLDS now? On top of losing control of Short Creek in the wake of this afternoon's verdict, Lyle Jeffs and other key FLDS leaders are facing charges for their role in food stamp fraud that allegedly bilked the government of millions. At a hearing in Salt Lake City this morning, a judge denied Jeffs bail, meaning he'll stay in jail until the case goes to trial. In a separate federal case, he faces accusations of using FLDS children as child labor.

"All of this kind of gives me hope, but at the same time, causes a lot of apprehension and worry too because the people who are still in are really the most loyal and zealous," Brower says. "They're going to consider this a test and the outside world is intruding on them and they could feel like they're backed in a corner. I do worry this could result in some kind of violence and bloodshed."

Others in Short Creek told me they think that with this verdict, the 8,000 or so FLDS who are still loyal to Jeffs will simply abandon the community and move to other property the church owns, perhaps in Mancos, Colorado or Pringle, South Dakota.

"This won't be the end," Jessop says. "You can arrest all the leaders, but when there are thousands of people who still believe in the doctrine, and answer to Warren Jeffs, nothing has really changed. They may not stay in Short Creek, but this isn't the end of the FLDS."

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