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Tuesday, May 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Insider accounts put sect leader on the run

Los Angeles Times

Second of two parts

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — To his followers, Warren Jeffs is a teacher and spiritual leader who channels divine revelations — the man they call their prophet.

To the FBI, Jeffs is a rape suspect and fugitive on its Ten Most Wanted list with a $100,000 bounty on his head — a man they call armed and dangerous.

Despite the conflicting images, one thing is clear: Jeffs' four-year reign as the patriarch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, has been the most tumultuous in at least 50 years.

His authoritarian rule has sparked internal conflict and lawsuits alleging misconduct, including sexual abuse. That, in turn, has attracted uncommon public scrutiny to this secretive sect of polygamists and their remote enclave along the Utah-Arizona border.

Former members and state investigators describe it as a tyrannical theocracy.

"I have a corner of my state that is worse than [under] the Taliban," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said.

Carolyn Jessop, who fled the community under cover of darkness with eight children in a van and $20 in her pocket, said she still finds it "hard to believe this stuff is going on in the United States."

Jessop, now 38, was the fourth wife of a high-ranking church leader when she escaped three years ago.

Her oldest son had been yanked out of school at age 12 by his father to work construction jobs. She feared Jeffs, who has been accused of pedophilia, planned to take her 13-year-old daughter as a bride.

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She is among former church members speaking out, challenging state and federal authorities to protect women and children who they say are victims of sexual abuse and civil-rights violations.

From its beginning in the 1930s, the FLDS, a Mormon offshoot, has been more than just a church. It is a way of life — influenced by seemingly arbitrary edicts and so-called divine revelations that don't stop after Sunday services.

Playing basketball might be fine one day, outlawed the next. Church would be open, then shuttered for months. Men in good standing for years might be expelled without explanation.

Absolute obedience is the cornerstone of the faith and endlessly preached.

"Man actually belongs to [the] prophet, willing to do what is directed," a transcript of a past sermon shows Jeffs saying. A woman, he said, should concentrate entirely on submitting to her husband, praying each morning, " 'I want to do your will, Father, through obeying my husband, or my father or our prophet.' "

Trust in control

Until recently, the FLDS operated under a trust called the United Effort Plan, or UEP. The trust ran businesses in Colorado City and adjoining Hildale, Utah. It owned all the homes, and members tithed 10 percent of their annual incomes, usually in monthly payments.

Residents lived largely rent-free but were at the mercy of the church. If they displeased it, they could be evicted. If they worked for an FLDS business, they could lose their jobs as well. Worse, they could be damned.

One thing never changed: polygamy. It remains central to the faith, as it did to mainstream Mormons before they abandoned the practice in 1890.

FLDS members are taught they cannot reach the highest levels of heaven without at least three wives. Women, often girls, are "gifted" to men by the prophet. A former member said one of his "mothers" was 13 when he was 8. Wives are encouraged to give birth each year.

No one marries without the prophet's permission. Circumventing the process can lead to excommunication.

Former FLDS Prophet Leroy Johnson urged boys to avoid girls until he placed them into marriages.

"Treat the girls in your acquaintance as though they were snakes," he counseled. "Hands off!"

Some young men and women try to pre-empt arranged marriages by finding someone they like and asking permission to marry. That backfires sometimes.

Ruth Stubbs was 15 when she asked former FLDS Prophet Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' father, if she could marry her sweetheart, Carl Cooke.

The senior Jeffs said he'd "take it up with the heavenly father."

When she returned in the company of her sister's husband, Rodney Holm, Rulon Jeffs told her: "It comes to me that you belong to Rod."

The two were married in 1998, and Stubbs became wife No. 3 for Rodney Holm, a 32-year-old Colorado City police officer.

Still, as easily as marriages could be done, they could be undone.

Richard Holm, a Colorado City town councilman, said both his wives were taken from him and his children given to another man. He then was kicked out of town.

"Warren told me that the Lord had told him to get rid of me," Richard Holm recalled. Boys received similar treatment, booted out on the flimsiest of pretexts. The reason, outside investigators say, was to reduce competition for wives.

"Lost boys"

Sam Icke was one of more than 400 youths expelled, known as the Lost Boys. His crime was having a girlfriend. He met with Jeffs before his exile.

"He asked me graphic sex details and took notes," said Icke, then 18. "I was told to repent, so I went on a repenting spree. I wanted to stay. I was afraid, like a bird being pushed out of its nest. My dad got a call a few days later from Warren, and he said I should leave."

Many boys said local police were sent by the FLDS leadership to harass and ticket them.

"If there was a young kid in town they didn't like, they would get rid of him," said Paul Musser, a former police dispatcher. "The police were watching for people they thought were not good influences. They would wait for probable cause — or maybe they wouldn't."

Women, needed for wives, rarely were pushed out. Instead, those who disobeyed faced being sent to mental hospitals.

Pam Black said her now-deceased husband, a Colorado City policeman, would hold the phone and threaten to dial 911 whenever she refused his commands.

Sworn affidavits from FLDS women accusing law enforcement of illegally transporting them to mental facilities without due process were submitted as part of an Arizona state inquiry into local police practices.

Climate of fear

Surrounded by outside authorities too timid to act and local police unwilling to protect them, victims have risked home and livelihood fighting back.

Pennie Peterson was born and reared in Colorado City. Independent-minded even as a child, she read voraciously, even books banned by the FLDS.

All the while, she said, she was fending off sexual abuse from every direction.

"My best friend got married at 14. Her husband ... started getting on me. I went to my parents, big mistake. ... The Prophet Leroy Johnson decided I should marry [the abuser]," Peterson recalled. "I'd be his fifth wife, and he was 48."

Peterson said molesters, when caught with a girl, often were told to marry the victim.

Unwilling to marry at 14, Peterson ran away to Las Vegas. She later learned that her 12-year-old sister had married 39-year-old Colorado City polygamist William Orson Black Jr.

Peterson tried to intervene. By the time she had persuaded authorities to raid Black's house, he had fled with her sister to Mexico, where he remains a fugitive.

Investigators with the Arizona attorney general's office say they believe Colorado City police tipped off Black. Police also are accused of warning Warren Jeffs before Utah investigators tried, and failed, to serve him with a subpoena.

In 2001, Peterson found another of her sisters, Ruth Stubbs, on her doorstep, fleeing what she said was an abusive polygamous marriage to Rodney Holm.

Peterson assembled the facts and persuaded Utah to prosecute Holm for having sex with a minor, because he married Stubbs when she was 16. He was sentenced to a year in jail, serving at night, and was released after six months.

It was rare for a polygamist to be prosecuted in Utah. State authorities consider it impractical to prosecute its estimated 20,000 polygamists, even though the practice is a felony in Utah.

"They keep saying it's a religious-freedom issue," Peterson said. "I keep saying it is not a religious-freedom issue, it's about sleeping with children."

Holm's conviction provided an opening for other victims, the first crack in FLDS defenses against outsider intrusions. A group of Lost Boys followed up with a lawsuit against the church. One man sued Jeffs, saying the prophet molested him as a child.

Dissent from within

Internal frictions mounted as Jeffs imposed draconian punishments.

He called a rare town meeting in January 2004 and read the names of 21 men he called "master deceivers," including Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow. They were excommunicated, and Jeffs gave their wives and children to other men.

"He told us to keep working, keep sending him money and to repent from afar," said Isaac Wyler, who was on the list and didn't know why.

Rumors spread that the exiled men were coming back with guns blazing.

More significant, former insiders began telling their stories. Few were as explosive as the one told by Brent Jeffs. He told his in a formal complaint filed in court.

In 2004, Brent Jeffs named his uncle Warren Jeffs in a civil lawsuit seeking damages for sexual abuse the nephew allegedly suffered as a boy. He charged that his uncle routinely and repeatedly sodomized him as a 5-year-old.

Brent Jeffs kept quiet for years, he said, until nightmares became unbearable. When he told his family, two of his brothers said the same abuse had happened to them.

Warren Jeffs never responded to the lawsuit. He has not been seen in public since the civil claim against him was published.

Brent Jeffs is seeking a default judgment. His brother Clayne killed himself with a shot to the head shortly after sharing his long-held secret.

Lawsuits and increased media coverage attracted the attention of state officials. Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard met with Lost Boys and some of the exiled men.

Shurtleff first went after the trust, working to break up the $150 million United Effort Plan. Through court action, he put it under the supervision of an outside administrator, removing threats of eviction as a tool of FLDS control.

Goddard asked the Justice Department to open a civil-rights investigation to determine if Colorado City police unlawfully expelled boys from town and failed to properly handle sexual-abuse complaints.

Colorado City police officers Sam Roundy and Vance Barlow were decertified last year and were forced to surrender their badges.

The church hierarchy relocated to a sprawling compound in Eldorado, Texas.

New enclaves have emerged in South Dakota and Colorado. Additional FLDS groups operate in Nevada, Idaho, British Columbia and Mexico.

The search for Warren Jeffs has spread across the U.S.

In October, Seth Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' brother, was arrested near Pueblo, Colo., along with a cousin. He pleaded guilty this month to harboring a federal fugitive. He is scheduled for sentencing in July.

In the past week, attention to the fugitive prophet intensified with the FBI announcement elevating him to the most-wanted list.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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