Rules for Warren Jeffs' followers grow more restrictive
As his followers mail out thousands of copies of apocalyptic "revelations from God" purportedly authored by imprisoned polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, former members say he is setting out increasingly extreme rules for his people.
It has some comparing Jeffs to violent 1970s polygamous sect leader Ervil LeBaron and concerned about where he is taking the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Several former FLDS members say the new requirements implemented by leaders loyal to Jeffs reach deep into followers' personal lives: Men are barred from having sex with their wives, families are required to get rid of their children's toys, girls under 18 are no longer to hold jobs or have cellphones.
Starting this year, members have been required to hand over all their possessions to leadership, and are given back only what the bishop deems necessary, said Willie Jessop, former church spokesman and current supporter of a rival sect prophet.
Bikes, trampolines and all-terrain vehicles, once-common sights in the FLDS home base of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, can be seen for sale on the side of the highway. Those requirements had never been a part of FLDS culture, Jessop said, though, unknown to the majority of members, the elite group that Jeffs drew to the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, was already following them.
"You forfeit control of your destiny and subject yourself to them. You have nothing that you control," Jessop said. After members sign over their assets, he said, they're required to undergo extensive interviews to determine if they are worthy of FLDS membership. If they are found to be unworthy, members can be excommunicated from the community with little more than the shirt on their backs, he said. Among the requirements is ignorance of Jeffs' conviction for sexually assaulting girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as underage wives in Texas, Jessop said. Jeffs, 56, was sentenced to life in prison in August.
Numbers dwindling • Even as people are excommunicated, others are choosing to leave when faced with the new edicts. Combined, up to 10 people a day are leaving the FLDS, Jessop estimated. That means a smaller group of only the most faithful, obedient followers are left, former FLDS members say.
But with a new reported deadline of Dec. 31 to prove faithfulness and give $5,000 or be excommunicated, aid workers are concerned that a large number of people with very little to their names could soon be looking for help.
"We are very concerned," said Tonia Tewell, executive director of Holding out Help, a nonprofit for people who are leaving polygamous groups. Her organization, she said, is already taxed.
Jessop calls it a "social crisis."
"This is a level of abuse of power and creation of victims that is unparalleled and the fallout of it is going to be felt for a number of years," Jessop said. "We're only one step away from Ervil LeBaron."
LeBaron, who founded the offshoot polygamous sect Church of the Lamb of God in 1972, wrote a 400-page Book of the New Covenants while imprisoned for ordering the death of a rival leader. In it, he imposed the death penalty for any member who broke sect commandments, and the FBI said his writings influenced his family members to carry out murders in Texas in 1988.
'Let my servant Warren Jeffs go' • Though they contain no direct threats to specific people, some see a parallel between LeBaron's writing and Jeffs' so-called revelations from God. Early this year, his followers began sending thousands of copies of revelations to governments offices all over the world, said community resident and former member Isaac Wyler. The wording and tone of the revelations is similar to others presented by Jeffs during his trial in Texas.
A dozen revelations have been made and sent out in three packets since Jeffs was sentenced in Texas. Dated from August through November, they contain datelines from Jeffs' prison cell that match his movements confirmed by prison officials.
The documents outline biblical consequences earthquakes, fires and tidal waves if Jeffs and nine other FLDS men incarcerated in Texas prisons aren't freed. A sample line: "Let my servant Warren Jeffs go ... lest you bring my full cleansing to the land where he is in bondage, unjustly held."
It isn't entirely clear how Jeffs might be getting the message out; FLDS elder Vaughan Taylor, listed as the contact on the letters, did not return calls for comment. But prison officials say Jeffs is allowed a 15-minute phone call every day and visitors on the weekends, as well as unlimited letters. All of those privileges could be limited if officials found Jeffs were making or sending threats, but so far officials haven't seen anything that's warranted censure, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.
Since the letters are actually coming from his followers, "if he's not directly writing it or sending it out, if it were purportedly or allegedly coming from him, that would be more difficult to police," Clark said.
None of the documents have threatened or commanded any violence, but they may be getting more specific: One of the most recent, dated Nov. 20, contains an apparent reference to Rebecca Musser, a former sect member who testified extensively in Texas to verify evidence against Jeffs was authentic FLDS documents. Though the passage questioned her authority rather than expressing any threat, private investigator and author Sam Brower said he's concerned followers could extrapolate.
"Warren has been able to get people to do things that are beyond reason. My worry is that someone who is wacky enough will reach this and think, 'I need to do this for God and the prophet,'" he said.
'The revelations don't contain overt threats' • Ezra Draper, a former member who left about seven years ago, said he's also growing concerned.
"I really think that he's asked such bizarre things of people before and they have so willingly come, that there is really nothing stopping him from asking them to spill blood and they will," he said. The group, however, hasn't shown a propensity toward violence: Even as Texas authorities entered their temple at the remote YFZ Ranch during a massive 2008 raid, FLDS men knelt in prayer and sobbed rather than resort to violence.
Some familiar with the sect reject the idea that members could ever turn violent. Ken Driggs, an attorney and writer who has been studying the group for more than 20 years and has many friends within it, said this year has marked a more natural period of turmoil not uncommon to religious societies.
Violence is "just not in the cards. That's not who these people are," he said. There's a lot of hot, violent rhetoric down there from time to time, but that's as far as it's going to go."
Tewell, with Holding out Help, expressed a similar sentiment.
"The people inside are just as sweet as can be; it's the leaders who are going haywire right now and making all these demands," she said. "This is common every so often, for them to purify and cleanse, and that's exactly what this is, a purge."
Washington County attorney Brock Belnap said police are watching.
"The frequency and stridency of the revelations has increased, but the revelations don't contain overt threats," Belnap said in an email message. "Law enforcement doesn't want to over-react, but we are in regular communication and are monitoring the situation."
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