Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Warren Jeffs, along with other officials in the church and its former land trust, is accused of carrying out a “calculated plan” to sexually abuse underage girls as part of a religious ritual, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit also cites for alleged wrongdoing the United Effort Plan Trust, Warren Jeffs’ brothers Lyle and Seth Jeffs, former FLDS President and convicted bigamist Wendell Nielsen, and the church.
The lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court alleges that as part of their FLDS beliefs, men have historically sexually abused and assaulted underage girls. However, under Warren Jeffs’ leadership, the lawsuit’s plaintiff — a 21-year-old woman identified as R.H. — says a new practice involving ritualistic sexual intercourse with young girls began.
Starting when she was 8 years old, the woman says, she would be taken from her home, wearing a bag over her head, to an unknown location — typically an FLDS temple in the Colorado City, Ariz., area or other church- or trust-owned properties — where she would be assigned a number for a religious ritual, according to the lawsuit.
There, she was reportedly sexually assaulted by the Jeffses, Nielsen or other church members and leaders. When the men weren’t assaulting her, she says, they watched.
The 21-year-old said Warren Jeffs warned her that if she told anyone about the abuse, according to the lawsuit, “God would destroy her and her family immediately.” He also reportedly said that if she cried during the ritual, “God would punish her.”
The rituals reportedly occurred five to six times a week until the woman turned 12. When she was 14 years old, the lawsuit alleges, she was forced to watch and document other girls’ ritualistic abuse with church leaders.
The woman’s attorneys cite evidence recovered from the FLDS Church’s temple in Eldorado, Texas — on the compound where Warren Jeffs lived before his arrest and conviction for sexually assaulting two girls — as proof of the abuse.
The woman says the abuse continued when she turned 16 and began taking part in “Ladies Class” to learn to be a good wife. During those classes, she says, Lyle Jeffs would escort her out of class and into his sound-proof office, where he would sexually assault her “under the guise of further teachings” in the class.
The lawsuit says the church and its former land trust are liable because they hired the church leaders and, therefore, aided in the abuse.
The woman is requesting physical and emotional damages and has asked for jury trial, according to the lawsuit. Her attorneys — Michael Worel, Alan Mortensen and Lance Milne — also represented Elissa Wall, who filed a lawsuit against Warren Jeffs and many of the same defendants in 2005 over being forced to marry when she was 14 years old.
Wall’s case was resolved in September, when a judged ordered that Warren Jeffs pay Wall $16 million in damages.
The woman came to Worel, Mortensen and Milne because they represented Walls, Worel said. The 21-year-old wanted to file the lawsuit, he said, because she believes the alleged abuse is still happening in the church.
“The whole point of filing the lawsuit is she's hoping to empower others to come forward and to speak out and to see if we can make this stop," Worel said.
Jeff Barlow, executive director of the United Effort Plan Trust, declined to speak Wednesday evening, adding that he’d comment on the lawsuit once he reviewed the complaint.
Lyle Jeffs, who was once the FLDS church’s day-to-day leader, was recently sentenced to nearly 5 years prison for his role in a churchwide defrauding of the government through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and for fleeing from authorities.
Seth Jeffs was also charged in that case. He pleaded guilty, received credit for time served as part of a plea deal and was released from jail.
Correction: 9 a.m. >> An earlier version of this story named the wrong Jeffs brother in one instance of alleged sexual abuse. The alleged victim accused Lyle Jeffs of the sexual abuse that reportedly occurred when she was 16 years old.