On the lam with Warren Jeffs
Story originally published April 29, 2007
For seven months, Wendell Musser served in Warren S. Jeffs' inner circle, working as a courier and family caretaker for wives of the fugitive polygamous sect leader. Musser's clandestine "mission" had a story line drawn from a spy novel. There were midnight rides to secret locations; shifting hideouts; disposable phones; high-tech tracking equipment; a fleet of expensive vehicles; disguises.
There was a subplot, too: An apocalyptic claim that the devil was raging, the Second Coming near, yet Jeffs would survive it all.
Musser's account of his months in hiding, also laid out in a new lawsuit, discloses for the first time how Jeffs lived while on the lam.
He also sheds light on how Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, used his unchallenged power to dictate the lives of his followers.
Musser was just 21 when Jeffs called him to help look after his "spiritual wives." Over those months, he stifled his uneasiness while struggling with the pressure.
Last June, he made one mistake, and Jeffs exacted the most severe punishment. In an instant, those Musser loved most - his wife, Vivian, and 1-year-old son, Levi - vanished. He was cast off.
But Musser refuses to quietly walk away, as so many FLDS men have done. MusÂser's lawsuit, submitted Friday in 5th District Court in St. George, charges Jeffs with interfering with his parental rights and with alienation of affection.
He wants to hold, love and be a father to his son. He wants Vivian back.
"That is my plan. To go for Levi and hopefully, she'll see that I still love her and that I've been waiting for her," he said.
A cryptic call
Musser was 19 when he got a startling call from Jeffs: He was to be married in just a few hours.
It was a rare "blessing" for such a young man in a community where wives are often doled out as rewards for allegiance.
Musser was born and raised in "Short Creek," as the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., were once known.
He is a great-grandson of Joseph W. Musser, an early fundamentalist Mormon leader, and grandson of deceased FLDS prophet Rulon T. Jeffs, Warren's father.
"I've had a really, really good reputation out there for a few years," said Musser, who has 45 siblings.
His assigned marriage to Vivian Barlow took place on April 1, 2004. Life couldn't have been sweeter for the young couple, especially after their son's birth on July 30, 2005.
Then out of nowhere, Musser got a cryptic phone call.
It was from Jeffs, who said Musser would soon be called on a mission as a "caretaker."
"That's where our lives changed really fast," Musser said.
It was November 2005, and problems were compounding for Jeffs. He had been an FBI "Wanted" fugitive since August, after a Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury indictment on felony sex-crime charges for conducting underage marriages.
A Utah court had taken over the $111 million property trust Jeffs once ran. Two civil lawsuits accused the sect leader of mistreatment and abuse.
And just a month earlier, couriers Seth Jeffs, his brother, and Nathaniel Allred had been arrested in Pueblo, Colo., cracking the secrecy surrounding Jeffs.
A search of their vehicle turned up cash, documents and letters, much of it intended for the fugitive sect leader.
In that November phone call, Jeffs blamed his brother's arrest on Allred's faithlessness.
"I could tell it was a shock to him," he said. "But he told me the reason that happened was because [Allred] feared."
Jeffs told Musser to wrap up his job as an installer for Redstone Surfaces and prepare to go into hiding at a moment's notice.
Musser didn't ask any questions. "We were good believers in the church or whatever, so we were willing to do what we were told to do," he said.
He was told not to discuss the assignment with Vivian, but "I slipped and told her. I was pretty stressed, and she was wondering what was happening."
Meeting the wives
Jeffs called again a month later. He informed Musser the couple had "qualified" for their mission, which would involve caring for his family.
They would be leaving that night, Jeffs said. He did not disclose where they were going.
Tom Cox and Nephi Allred, FLDS high priests, picked up the young family at 2 a.m. Thus began a 19-hour journey that included stops only for fuel and ended at a home in Williamsburg, Colo., pop. 753, located about 30 miles west of Pueblo.
The road-weary travelers entered a dark home that was furnished with a couple of beds but little else.
Musser feared Cox and Allred would just take off, so he explained to them he still had no idea what he was supposed to do. But the two men didn't know much, either.
That night, the three men visited a Wal-Mart in nearby Canon City, where they bought several prepaid cell phones whose numbers were passed to Jeffs.
Jeffs called the next day. He told Musser that some of his wives would soon arrive and explained he was to set up the home, do the shopping, run errands and "pretty much be a father figure and take care of them while he couldn't" - all funded by FLDS tithes.
Musser said numerous caretakers like himself ran safe houses for Jeffs' family. He estimates that Jeffs has around 180 wives, most believed to be wives only in a spiritual sense. Many were formerly sealed to his father, Rulon, with whom, Jeffs has promised, they will be reunited in Heaven.
A day later, eight or nine women arrived. They ranged in age from 28 to 30, Musser said. Just one had a child, from whom she had been separated.
Over the next months, wives and some of Jeffs' daughters rotated in and out of the three homes Musser oversaw.
"They were real familiar with just moving around," he said. "They had very little to haul."
'The devil was raging'
Jeffs' wives filled their days reading scriptures; talking; and sewing the sacred, ankle-to-wrist undergarments worn by faithful FLDS members.
Musser avoided contact with neighbors, and the women were forbidden to leave the home. He tried to ease the strain of captivity by fencing in the yard so Jeffs' wives could go out for fresh air and exercise.
Even so, some women refused to venture out.
Several weeks passed before Jeffs, accompanied by his brother Isaac Jeffs, visited the Williamsburg home. Only Musser knew he was coming.
Musser said Jeffs had shucked his conservative suits for the everyday wear of the outside world and was really "bearded up."
"Our whole lives we've been told not to dress like what he calls 'Gentiles' or whatever, and at that point he told me to do that, to disguise myself," said Musser, who even bought a fake beard.
Jeffs brought with him a black briefcase, in which he had a tape recorder and laptop computer. He gathered the names of those at the home, asked a few questions and sat "staring at us for a long time," Musser said.
Then he launched into a teaching focused on revelations.
Jeffs told the wives to prepare to meet Rulon in a sacred place. He warned that Short Creek had been rejected, the devil was raging and time for redemption was short.
Afterward, he visited privately with a couple of the wives.
The visit, which lasted about three hours, left Musser and his wife in shock.
"Kind of scared us pretty good on that first one," Musser said. "We had no idea that it was getting that extreme, me and Vivian."
Disguised at Wal-Mart
Jeffs visited the Williamsburg home twice, never staying more than a few hours.
"He appeared to be traveling a lot," Musser said. "We would make him food when he would come, and then he would go again."
Musser said he was increasingly disturbed by the situation - and the obvious loneliness and despair shown by Jeffs' wives.
"Some of them would hardly eat and appeared to be sad all the time," he said.
Just what was going on? Musser wondered. Why were they hiding?
"When you're doing something like that, you're thinking, 'Well, OK, just be obedient here, be obedient.' But as I would see how unhappy his family was . . .''
Earlier on, Jeffs had instructed Musser's wife to wear the same pastel, collared dresses his own wives wore - which greatly bothered Musser.
All their lives the couple had been taught that the church president had the right to rule all aspects of their lives. But this?
"It felt like a different motive was there," said Musser, whose thoughts of leaving with his family intensified. "That's what was scary to me."
Vivian did as told, and Musser stayed put.
After Jeffs' second visit, Musser was instructed to move to a home in Florence, a much larger city to the north.
It was a nicer, larger, eight-bedroom residence, and soon it was filled with Jeffs' wives, who settled quickly into their now-familiar routine.
Musser received most of his instructions from Jeffs by telephone, though they met a few times in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Colorado Springs.
They would talk in the back of whatever vehicle - a BMW SUV, Chevrolet Suburban, all "nice and new" - Jeffs happened to be traveling in. Jeffs, who had grown a "long-whiskered" beard, would sometimes don a disguise - a ball cap with an attached wig and sunglasses - and venture into the store.
Musser also was serving as a courier for Jeffs, ferrying envelopes of cash and personal correspondence and "things like that" to Utah, Wyoming and other locales.
Meanwhile, the pressure Musser felt was building.
"I was young and all these women coming to me for their needs, the list of the shopping," he said. "It was like we were their servants."
And Vivian, he said, "would try to be friends with them and it was like they were way higher and better. You know, they're the prophet's wives and she's just Wendell's wife."
Jeffs came to the second home just once. Musser picked Jeffs up in Pueblo and drove him to Florence to see the place.
They had lived there only a month when Musser was told to move again, this time to Westcliffe, Colo.
The prophet's rebuke
Westcliffe, a historic Western town, has a population of 417 and is located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is known for its bluegrass festival and the Western Days Shootout.
Musser worked with a couple of other men on the new home - an unfinished cabin - disclosing nothing.
"We were supposed to even be careful that people from Colorado City didn't know what I was doing," he said.
The cabin was isolated enough that the women felt safe enough to plant a garden. Still, Musser built yet another fence.
Jeffs came to Westcliffe about three times in the three months Musser lived there, arriving unannounced and staying only a few hours to preach.
He seemed oblivious to the emotional despair of his spiritual wives, Musser said, treating it "like a joke."
For a time, one wife had taken to pointing out "where everybody was doing wrong."
After she badly cut herself opening a coconut - and then refused to get help without Jeffs' permission - the prophet scolded her in a revelation dictated to Musser over the phone.
Jeffs said his late father had told him not to speak to the woman until she stopped having bad feelings.
"In it he kind of rebuked her, just kind of toyed around with her," Musser said.
The woman was devastated, Musser said. But Jeffs "talked to me the next day and he chuckled about it. He said, 'How did that go?'
"And I was like, 'My goodness, buddy, do you know what we're going through here?' "
A family, gone
To Musser, there seemed no way out of this life of servitude, no escape from this mission in "nowhere land, doing nothing."
"I didn't get to spend a lot of time with Levi because I was trying to take care of these people," he said, and Vivian "was about ready to die in there."
Still, he would try to "keep sweet," as the FLDS have been taught for decades.
But at the end of June, it all fell apart.
Musser was headed home from a weeklong trip to Utah and Wyoming, where he had delivered envelopes, exchanged sewing machines and taken care of other business for Jeffs.
He stopped, alone, in Colorado Springs for a few drinks, which was something he and Vivian did periodically throughout their marriage. Shortly after, he was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence.
The officers took note of the Hildale address on Musser's driver license and the GPS equipment in his vehicle. He was questioned at length about Jeffs, but Musser denied knowing anything about him.
Two days later, he was released and immediately called Nephi Allred to let him know what had happened.
Musser was told to dump his GPS unit and his phones; he agreed to wait a few days before returning to Westcliffe to avoid being followed.
He expected Jeffs to chastise him; he hoped to then be released from his mission with his family.
As he pulled up to the cabin, Musser saw the fence was gone. Dread set in.
When a stranger answered his knock at the door, Musser asked for Lee Steed, who had been in charge of securing the Colorado properties.
The man said Steed had moved and left no forwarding information.
"I remember it was raining there, and I just went back toward the car and the guy was watching me, and I remember just kind of dropping to my knees and saying, 'Oh no.' "
'No longer yours'
Musser placed desperate calls to his father, to Lyle Jeffs and to Nephi Allred, all of whom gave him the same message: Go back to Utah, write a confession, do what the prophet says.
Lyle Jeffs told Musser his family had been turned over to the bishop. "They are no longer yours," Musser recalled Lyle Jeffs saying.
Musser went home and for two weeks held out hope his past obedience might win him back his family.
But it made him "sick to see my father and them and this great thing we've all been striving for our whole lives was so much different than we had expected."
So Musser set off to find his family. For a month last summer, he scoured Colorado from Florence to Fort Collins, visiting old safe houses and hoping for a glimpse of Vivian. He found no trace of his family.
Musser then moved to Idaho to work with his brother Benjamin but kept haranguing his father, father-in-law and others for help locating his family. Walk away, they said, refusing to believe his account of life with Jeffs.
Once in Idaho, he learned about the other lawsuits filed against Jeffs - including a criminal case involving Jane Doe, who is related to Benjamin's wife.
Not long after Musser abandoned his search, Jeffs was arrested while traveling Interstate 15 outside Las Vegas. One of Musser's thoughts: So much for Jeffs' prophesy that he would be a "living witness and that the Lord would sweep the wicked off the Earth before he was caught."
Jeffs' capture gave Musser hope that he might soon reconnect with his family.
But birthdays and anniversaries have passed and Musser, now 22, has no idea where Vivian, 20, or Levi are. He believes they, like all those spiritual wives, remain in hiding.
He has filed missing person reports, written to Jeffs asking for help and now is pinning hopes on his lawsuit.
"I want Warren to realize that they can't do that to people," he said.
Most of all, he wants this message sent out to his family:
"That I love them very much. That I think about them every day. That I hope they're fine and healthy. That I'm looking forward to seeing them again and being part of their life."