n a January morning in Phoenix, Willie Jessop enters the courtroom through a side door, nods at the lawyers and saunters up to the witness stand. He’s a big man – six feet three, well over 200 pounds – and, as usual, is dressed in black. He glances at the jury, a faint smile crossing his lips. In the past, Jessop has been the staunchest defender of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamist offshoot of Mormonism. When he used to take the stand to explain their way of life, a few sister wives in pastel prairie dresses would always be on hand to show support. But today, they’re gone. That’s because Jessop, the former spokesman for the FLDS and one-time bodyguard to its jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs, has turned against his church. He’s not here to defend the FLDS; he’s here to take it down.
The prosecutor asks why Jessop would turn on FLDS leadership to become a key witness for the Department of Justice. Jessop’s face reddens as he leans forward. “Because those sons of bitches were raping girls in Texas, and they knew it and I knew it,” he says, “and that battle is still raging today.”
It’s Week Two in a federal trial currently underway against the adjoining towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and increasingly disturbing and bizarre revelations are coming to light. Known collectively as Short Creek, the two towns have a total population of about 8,000, the majority FLDS, making the community the largest polygamist enclave in America. For generations, the FLDS leadership has had total control over this desert outpost on the edge of the Grand Canyon, selecting the mayors, the city council and even the town marshals without any problem. But in recent years, the DOJ has been investigating allegations that the two towns have been violating residents’ civil rights, allowing the church to use public officials to run members who left the faith – “apostates” in FLDS parlance – out of town, denying utility hookups and even spying on citizens. The trial is slated to end in late February or early March and, if the feds are successful, criminal charges could follow, helping to end FLDS control over Short Creek.
But the FLDS isn’t expected to go without a fight. Once a fringe religious community seemingly stuck in time, Short Creek has fallen into a spell under its prophet, Warren Jeffs – a spindly, hollow-eyed man who allegedly runs the town despite serving a life sentence in Texas for multiple convictions of child rape. Jeffs has banned all TV and the Internet in Short Creek. His private security force roams the streets in SUVs with blacked-out windows, enforcing church discipline and tailing anyone who passes through town. FLDS members who disobey his word are banished.
But not everyone is following Jeffs’ orders anymore. Jessop is part of a growing band of outcasts numbering in the hundreds who have refused to leave town, and the rising tension between the faithful and these exiles has pushed Short Creek to the brink of civil war. Former church members claim they have been driven off the road, seen FLDS children peeing on their lawns and found dead animals with their throats slit left on their porches. In September, the office window of a victim’s advocate was shot out. A week later, someone blew up an apostate’s truck. There are even rumors that Jeffs is trying to create a master race, loyal only to him, through a secret breeding program known as the “seed bearers.” “This is a community that has been controlled by a madman now sitting in a jail in Texas,” says Sam Brower, a private investigator who worked on the Jeffs case and is the author of Prophet’s Prey, a penetrating look inside the FLDS. “That’s the really scary thing about this. This guy is crazy. The more power Warren Jeffs loses, the more desperate he becomes.”