For a time, with various cases against him falling apart, it seemed like Jeffs might actually be released. And then in the spring of 2008, responding to a complaint, Texas police breached the gates of the FLDS compound in West Texas, seizing evidence that resulted in the temporary removal of more than 400 children. The raid made international headlines and sparked the largest child-custody battle in U.S. history.
Suddenly, news trucks from around the country were descending on Texas and Short Creek to talk about Jeffs’ taste for young girls and what life was really like inside the secretive cult. In the meantime, investigators had uncovered evidence that Jeffs had taken several teen brides and married one girl who was only 12, consummating their marriage on a temple bed. Jeffs was eventually extradited from Utah to Texas and in August 2011 was sentenced to life in prison, plus 20 years.
Yet despite being in jail, Jeffs was still the prophet and determined to keep his stranglehold over Short Creek, where the majority of his estimated 10,000 followers lived. But the town was changing. During Jeffs’ years on the run, an obscure legal case made its way through the courts, challenging FLDS control over something called the United Effort Plan. Created by the town elders in the 1940s, the UEP was a charitable trust designed to allow FLDS members to live communally and keep outsiders at bay. All FLDS members gave ownership of their property to the church-controlled trust, on top of paying a percentage of their incomes. By the time Jeffs took over the church, in 2002, the FLDS owned nearly all of the land in Short Creek, which meant he could kick out whoever he wanted from their homes, a power he regularly abused.
But that all changed when several Lost Boys sued the church in 2004 for kicking them out. “Answer them nothing,” Jeffs told his lawyers. Any kind of response, he reasoned, would be an acknowledgment of the unholy power of the government. As far as legal strategies go, it was a disaster: Ignoring the lawsuit put the church’s assets in jeopardy. The state stripped Jeffs of his control over the trust, eventually revising it to benefit anyone who’d contributed time or money to building the community. Soon, apostates started trickling back into Short Creek, taking up residence in their former homes. “Leave them alone, severely,” Jeffs instructed, which meant don’t shop at their stores, speak with them or even wave while passing in the street. By the time Jeffs was sentenced in 2011, the apostates were returning in droves. The town was bitterly divided. Brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews were forced to choose sides.
The battle for Short Creek had begun.