Colorado City, Ariz. • Hundreds of polygamists consider him their prophet, seer and revelator. But on Sunday afternoons, William E. Jessop will spike a volleyball on any of them.
Jessop and his followers meet in the gymnasium at El Capitan High School here after church. While children play basketball, the teens and adults play volleyball. The 43-year-old Jessop is one of the most intense players, announcing the score before each serve, setting the ball to taller teammates and hurling his 6-foot-tall body into the air to spike the ball on any man, woman or child playing against him.
The games are reminiscent of better times in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, still called "Short Creek" by residents. Before Warren Jeffs' rise to power in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, children and adults played openly. Visitors were welcome and the community was, well, a community.
Jessop is trying to reinstate some of that fellowship. Empowered by a statement Jeffs made in jail, Jessop has separated from Jeffs. And hundreds of other refugees from Jeffs' reign are following him.
The group, which does not yet have a name, still holds polygamy as a tenet. Members refer to Jessop as "Uncle William," and his portrait often hangs on the walls of their homes along with those of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and other men they have considered prophets for nearly two centuries.
Recreation may be the least of the changes Jessop is making. He said underage girls will not be forced to marry or have marriages arranged for them. If teens want to marry, Jessop said, he will encourage them to consider the implications.
"We do not want to do anything that breaks the law," he said.
On the topic of marriage, he later added: "We'll encourage [girls] to be of age and learn the qualities of life and to enjoy life and not get into something they regret."
Jessop said women are free to work outside the home. And he wants kids from Hildale and Colorado City to earn high school and college degrees as they once did. Jessop and his first wife of 22 years, Joanna, have a daughter interning as a medical assistant in Nevada.
How many changes Jessop can implement remains to be seen. Jeffs' followers are still thought to number in the thousands, and they control the town government in Short Creek, as well as the utility boards and local police. Jeffs has Jessop to thank for maintaining some of that influence.
Doing Jeffs' bidding • This isn't the first time Jessop, who was born William E. Timpson, has been part of a split and reformation. In the 1980s, his father, Alma A. Timpson, was among the FLDS men who splintered from the church in a dispute about who controlled resources, forming a new polygamous community called Centennial Park.
The split divided families. Jessop's mother, Kathy Jessop, decided not to join her husband. She remained with the FLDS and married the revered local bishop, Fred Jessop.
William took his stepfather's surname, too. In later years, some people would confuse him with Willie Jessop, the gregarious excavation-company owner who for a time served as a spokesman for Jeffs and the FLDS. Willie Jessop has left Jeffs, too, and now follows "Uncle William."
Jessop owes some of his ecclesiastical rise to the Jeffs family. Shortly before he died, then-FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs made Jessop an apostle.
With his father, Rulon, gone, Warren Jeffs assumed FLDS leadership and kept Jessop as one of his top men. In a pattern that continues to this day, even though he's in prison, Jeffs would excommunicate teenage boys and men, sometimes dozens at a time, after claiming to receive a revelation that they committed some transgression.
Jessop spent years as the bishop of Short Creek and it was often his job to break the news to people Jeffs was booting. Over dinner and wine last week at a St. George restaurant, Jessop described how he would call each man to a meeting. Often, Jessop would simply tell them that "Uncle Warren" had a revelation they no longer held the priesthood and should go repent. That meant they had to leave Short Creek. Any wives or children who followed would be excommunicated, too. Those who remained were assigned to other men.
Jessop acknowledged taking some of those women as his own wives. Records seized by Texas authorities in the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch show Jessop had 11 wives as of 2006. Jessop says he has many fewer wives now.
Evictions such as the ones Jessop oversaw were devastating. The excommunicated no longer had a path to heaven. Here on Earth, they were separated physically and spiritually from friends and family.
One of the men Jessop kicked out for Jeffs in 2007 or 2008 was William Edward Chatwin, who then was in his late 60s. Chatwin's lone wife was taken from him, too. To this day, Chatwin still can't see his children who remain loyal to Jeffs.
One son who is not following Jeffs, Andrew Chatwin, said neither he nor his father has ever received an apology from Jessop.
"If he wants to build credibility again, I think [an apology] is part of the process," Andrew Chatwin said.
Banishment ends • Jessop said he sometimes questioned what he was doing, but he believed God spoke through Jeffs and continued Jeffs' bidding. Then, on Jan. 24, 2007, Jeffs called Jessop from the Washington County Jail.
Jeffs was awaiting trial on charges of rape as an accomplice. Jessop was living at an FLDS home in Westcliffe, Colo. According to a transcript of the call that was later made public, Jeffs called himself "one of the most wicked men on the face of the Earth." He said Jessop was the "key holder" and referenced Doctrine and Covenants Section 43, which says only the prophet can make revelations for the church.
Jeffs, it seemed, had abdicated his role as prophet and FLDS leader to Jessop.
A meeting of high-ranking FLDS men was quickly held in Amarillo, Texas. The men talked about what Jeffs had done and what to do next, but no decisions were made.
"We were just kind of sitting there in limbo for about two months," Jessop recalled.
Then one of Jeffs' brothers, Nephi Jeffs, called Jessop.
"He's back," Nephi Jeffs said of his brother.
Just as quickly as he gave it away, Jeffs reassumed FLDS control. Then, on Oct. 25, 2007, another phone call came.
It was Merril Jessop, another high-ranking FLDS member. Merril purported to be reading a revelation from Jeffs. It said William Jessop no longer held the priesthood and should go to Wisconsin and repent. The revelation didn't specify what Jessop had done. He assumes he was banished to Wisconsin because it was far from any FLDS.
Jessop went to the Mississippi River town of La Crosse, Wis., and worked painting houses and milking cows. He said four of his "ladies" (polygamist parlance for spiritual wives) were living with him. He spent 13 months there before receiving another phone call from Merril.
Jessop could return to Hildale. No explanation was given. But Merril said Jessop should start trying to reunite families.
Jessop found a list of men who had been kicked out and began calling them and telling them to return.
'Come clean before him' • Jessop continued working for and living with the FLDS, but his faith in Jeffs began to waver. Jeffs kept sending his followers long, written ramblings warning of evil. Jeffs' brother Lyle was supposed to be caring for women whose husbands had been booted. But bills were going unpaid and some women and their children reported their utilities had been shut off. The bishop's storehouse, where FLDS members were supposed to find food and supplies, had bare shelves.
Then, in early 2011, Willie Jessop told Jessop about the evidence against Jeffs, including how Jeffs sexually assaulted a 12-year-old. Jessop decided the Jeffs reign didn't make sense.
"The voice that I was hearing was not the voice of God," Jessop explained.
Jessop filed papers with the state of Utah in March 2011, asserting that he was the president of the FLDS corporation. Jeffs countered with his own filing, contending he retained the support of about 4,000 followers. Jessop abandoned his pursuit of the FLDS presidency. To this day, Jeffs is named as FLDS president on corporate documents filed with the state.
In a letter addressed to Lyle Jeffs and "all FLDS," dated Aug. 10, 2011, as Jeffs was on trial in Texas, Jessop encouraged everyone to turn away from the FLDS leadership. He accused the Jeffses of covering up their own immorality and of leading men into criminal behavior that sent them to prison and prompted the raid on the YFZ Ranch.
"This is our opportunity to come clean," Jessop wrote, "for the Lord said He will not be mocked, or you are going down with the wicked and be damned. I love you and ask the Lord to help us to come clean before him and be counted among His people that are the honest and pure in heart."
Since then, Jessop's followers have been slowly increasing. Unlike Jeffs' followers, Jessop's are free to use the Internet, eat what they want and associate with whom they please. Jessop spends most of his time in Short Creek leading Sunday services, performing weddings and other duties required of his church position. He also spends time in Sandy Valley, Nev., southwest of Las Vegas, where his family runs a hay and dairy farm.
During a break between volleyball games, Jessop discussed the people who founded Short Creek, describing them as good and "virtuous." Those remaining in Short Creek, he said, have a responsibility to continue that legacy.
Jessop said he has no more use for Jeffs but suggested he's open to Jeffs' followers joining him.
"If they realize what he is," he said, "and realize they have responsibilities and want to come to us, good."
Twitter: @natecarlisle William E. Jessop
Age • 43
Family • Legal wife is Joanna Jessop, 53, with whom he has 11 children.
Residence • Lives in Hildale, but his family owns a ranch in Sandy Valley, Nev.
Employment • Jessop has worked in construction, painting and farming, though much of his life has been spent working in various FLDS positions.