Records say FLDS boss tried suicide
Polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs attempted to hang himself in January while jailed in the Purgatory Correctional Facility, newly released court documents show.
Jeffs' suicide attempt came days after he told followers and family, in a series of calls, that he had been "deceived by the powers of evil" and had usurped the post as prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
And while Jeffs' attorneys said he retracted that statement weeks later, court documents show he renounced his status as prophet as recently as June.
"I am not the one to be the prophet, and I am not the one to continue," Jeffs said in a June 11 telephone call to FLDS member Merrill Jessop, who presides over the sect's YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Fifth District Judge James L. Shumate on Tuesday released documents detailing the suicide attempt and Jeffs' jailhouse conversations, which had previously been sealed.
By January, Jeffs, 51, had spent five months in the jail and had been fasting on and off, which caused him to lose about 20 pounds. He also had spent so much time on his knees praying he developed ulcers on his knees.
His attorneys describe him as disoriented during this period.
On Jan. 24, he made at least 11 telephone calls to family and followers in which he confessed to an unexplained immoral act with a sister and a daughter. Over and over, Jeffs said he had not been a priesthood holder since his 20s and that FLDS member William E. Jessop was the sect's rightful leader.
Jeffs also said that some men he had exiled from the faith - including Wendell Nielsen, thought to be a leader in the group - should be reunited with their families.
Some who received the calls, including his brother Isaac Jeffs, asked Jeffs if he had "tested" the source of his information. Jeffs answered yes.
'I am sorry': A day later, during a jailhouse visit with his brother Nephi, he urged followers to "have your testimony bright" and apologized for causing them distress.
Jeffs also said he was the "most wicked man in this dispensation, in the eyes of God."
Nephi Jeffs suggested his older brother was being tested by the Lord and promised that followers "will not forsake you."
Jeffs insisted he was not being tested.
"As far as I possibly can be, I am sorry from the bottom of my heart," Jeffs said.
Jeffs asked his brother to get a copy of the video recording of their discussion - jail officials routinely tape such visits - and show it to anyone who "desires to see it," including apostates and those outside the faith so "they may know that I have been a liar and the truth is not in me."
The sect leader asked for his followers' forgiveness, saying that the Lord promised him an "opportunity to undo what I have done."
Jeffs said he would not contact his family again and bid "farewell forever you who are worthy for Zion, for I will not be there."
Three days later, on Jan. 28, Jeffs tried to hang himself in his cell, according to an unredacted competency evaluation. Jail officials transported Jeffs to Dixie Regional Medical Center, where he was evaluated. He was then returned to the jail and placed on suicide watch.
Guards described him a day later as "somber and dull." When he continued to complain of feeling anxious, jail officials brought psychiatric consultants to meet with him.
On Jan. 30, the sect leader was "throwing himself against the walls," which led officials to give him a tranquilizer. He was still agitated on Feb. 2, when guards described him as "banging his head on the wall."
A psychiatrist who met with Jeffs said the suicide attempt was a "cry for help." Jeffs briefly took antidepressants in February and March, but had stopped using the medication by April.
'Wrong in sealing them': The evaluation was prepared after a March 27 hearing in which Jeffs appeared in in a "depressed, catatonic state." Shumate later ruled Jeffs fit for trial.
Shumate said Tuesday he sealed the evaluation reports and other documents to ensure he could seat an impartial jury for Jeffs' September trial on two charges of being an accomplice to rape. A jury convicted him on both counts on Sept. 25; he will be sentenced Nov. 20.
Prosecutors wanted to use the statements during Jeffs' trial to show his actions were calculated to maintain power and control over the FLDS - including Elissa Wall, whose forced marriage at age 14 led to the charges.
The release of the documents was supported by case law, said Shumate, and by his belief that the release would not be prejudicial in cases pending against Jeffs in Arizona.
"I was probably wrong in sealing them," the judge said. "We were successful here in picking a jury, and there is no question it can be done in Mohave County."
Walter F. Bugden, one of Jeffs' three attorneys, said he plans to file an appeal once Shumate sentences Jeffs and for that reason asked the judge to keep the documents sealed.
Bugden also said that Jeffs and family members had an expectation of privacy in those conversations, although they understood they were recorded by jail officials.
"He was talking of feelings, of maybe being depressed, [of] his religion or spirituality, and it is understood you don't expect that will then be released to the world," Bugden said Tuesday.
Brett D. Ekins, an attorney representing The Salt Lake Tribune and other news media, said that state's records law supported releasing the documents - particularly because Jeffs' trial is over.
He also said that releasing the documents was unlikely to impair Jeffs' ability to get a fair trial in Arizona.
"You can't restrain every detail in a criminal case just to assure you get an impartial jury," Ekins said.
'Life and death decisions': Salt Lake City attorney Roger Hoole asked Shumate to release the documents under a protective order so they would not be made public but could be used in civil cases pending against Jeffs and the United Effort Plan Trust, a property trust now under court management.
Hoole represents seven young men who filed lawsuits against the trust, Jeffs and other FLDS leaders. The men settled cases against the trust, but not the other defendants.
Hoole also represents Wall, who has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the UEP Trust.
"It is important [for his clients] to share the information with family and friends. Only then would they know they were kicked out by a guy who was never the prophet and a fraud," Hoole said.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap agreed the statements should be heard by Jeffs' followers.
"People make life-and-death decisions because he is a prophet," said Belnap. "And they may continue to believe that. But it is in their interest to let them know what he said."
At least one man kicked out of the faith has already reached his own conclusion.
Paul Musser was told by Rulon Jeffs, Warren's father and the previous prophet, to leave his wife and 13 children in 1999.
But Musser stayed in the faith's home base of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., until 2004 in hopes of being reunited with his family.
"I never even felt like [Warren Jeffs] was a prophet," said Musser, now living in Salt Lake City. "I didn't feel he was the caliber of person who could lead a people or be an effective leader."
The new disclosures may shake some followers' faith, he said.
"They believed this man was their prophet for a long time and that he could do no wrong and was being persecuted for righteousness' sake," Musser said.
One expert said it may not be that easy, however. In order to keep their faith intact, some may choose to disregard Jeffs' comments and see them as akin to New Testament accounts of Jesus wrestling with Satan.
"I believe a lot of people will find it very difficult to accept," said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and historian who has written extensively about the FLDS. "It undermines the principles on which they have based their lives . . . and they are going to be presented with a personal crisis."
Editor's note: The following are excerpts from telephone calls polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs made on Jan. 24, 2007, to followers and family. He advises them he committed immoral acts, that he is not the prophet and that they should prepare to go to the "land of refuge." Jeffs addresses a gathering of family.
He repeats that he is wicked because "I would not shed but one tear for the faithful of the saints of God when he commanded me. I will not be calling anymore, and look to the right authority."
Jeffs then says, "And this is my farewell to you. I love you and follow the [inaudible]. This is a message from the Lord. Goodbye."
Jeffs made several calls to Naomi Jeffs, one of his wives. She was with him when he was arrested in Nevada on Aug. 28, 2006.
Warren Jeffs: Hello there.
Naomi Jeffs: Hi.
Warren Jeffs: The Lord showed me recently though I've been in the key position, I am not the key holder since Father's passing [Rulon Jeffs, the previous prophet, who died in 2002].
I was covered with immorality with a sister and a daughter when I was younger, and he's shown me and detected me to myself. I haven't held priesthood since I was 20.
Jeffs then asks Naomi to destroy dictations he gave her, because "they are not of God."
All of mine are to be destroyed, except the ones with revelations [that] are true because I was in the key position. . . . And that you need to be re-baptized and that you'll be given to Brother William [Jessop]. So will all the ladies.
In another call, Jeffs talks to Naomi and then asks to speak with an unidentified "phone answerer."
Warren Jeffs: Howdy, I'm just letting you know all those ordinances, since Father's passing, are not valid, just letting you know.
Answerer: What about anything before the [inaudible], before Father's passing? [Rulon Jeffs]
Warren Jeffs: Father was there. Let me talk to Brother Merrill now.
Answerer: OK, he's still trying to get that number. We're praying for you.
Warren Jeffs: I'm just a damn soul, damned soul.
In a call to William Jessop, whom Jeffs refers to as the key holder, he advises:
Warren Jeffs: I know of your ordination, that you are the key holder and I sent a note with my signature verifying it so that there is no question, according to Section 43, although not valid. And all the ordinance work since Father's passing has to be redone. And there's many men that are sent away that do hold priesthood and their families will need to be put back. And then to say this to you, I am one of the most wicked men on the face of the Earth since the days of Father Adam.
Jeffs visited with his brother Nephi at the jail on Jan. 25 and clarified statements made the previous day, saying he was "the most wicked man in this dispensation," a reference to the period that began with Joseph Smith.
Warren Jeffs: Write this down.
Nephi Jeffs: OK.
Warren Jeffs: A message from the Lord, God of heaven, through his former servant, who is not his servant, that the messages I gave yesterday are true, except for the part about being the most wicked, the wickedest man on the face of the Earth since Adam's time. That part is from the powers of the evil one that were trying to influence me.
Jeffs later continued:
The Lord whispers to me to have you, Nephi, send this message everywhere you can among the priesthood people and get a copy of this video, letting anyone see it who desires to see it. They will see that I voice these words myself.
I ask, write this down. The Lord told me to say, and I yearn for everyone's forgiveness for my aspiring and selfish way of life, in deceiving the elect, breaking the new and everlasting covenant and being the most wicked man on the face of the Earth in this last dispensation.
Farewell, all of you, for the Lord has promised that I would be, I would have a place in the Telestial Kingdom of God, if I had my brother Nephi write these words down."
Jeffs concluded the call moments later, repeating, "This is not a test," and again saying farewell "to all who qualify for Zion." Three days later, Jeffs attempted to hang himself.
* The released documents are available at http://www.utcourts.gov/media, under "high profile court cases."