Suicides are taking a toll in and out of a Utah polygamous sect, and solutions don’t look easy

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brothers Thomas and Doyle Dockstader both left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, and considered suicide. Now they are talking about ways to help other ex-FLDS members. They were photographed in West Jordan on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Editor’s note This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Hildale • Seth Cooke asked to see his son’s right hand.

The son, Justin Cooke, had been in a lot of fights through the years. The Cookes were one of the first families here on the Utah-Arizona line to sue the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Other families didn’t like that, and Seth said his children suffered from taunting that turned into fistfights and left Justin with enlarged knuckles and crooked fingers on his right hand.

When Justin died by suicide, Seth wanted to see his body. The staff at the funeral home advised against that. So the grieving father persuaded a mortician to take a photo of Justin’s distinguishing right hand. The mortician walked his phone to Seth and showed him the picture.

The father thinks all those fights took an emotional toll that led to his son’s suicide.

“A lot of it is the pressures in the [FLDS] church,” he said. “Having to hate your grandmother; your grandmother having to hate you.”

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Seth Cooke opens the door of his late son's Jeep Wrangler on Oct. 4, 2019, in Hildale, Utah. Justin Cooke died by suicide in 2015.

Justin had separated from the FLDS by the time of his death — as have most of the names on a list of suicide victims being kept by social workers in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., the longtime home of the sect. Health department statistics report 31 suicides in the community of about 7,700 from 1999 to 2017. That number may seem small but, when applied on a per-capita basis, the rate is more than twice the national average.

And those are only the deaths in Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek. There are perhaps 20 more suicides in the FLDS or ex-FLDS population from the Arizona Strip to British Columbia. The exact figure is tough to pinpoint. Some deaths were ruled accidents or the manner was officially labeled “undetermined” but had circumstances pointing to suicide.

There has been no scholarly study of the deaths or the factors leading to them. In interviews, former sect members blame imprisoned FLDS President Warren Jeffs, who also is the faith’s prophet, and the way he has cast out or driven away many people who were once devout. The exiles are considered apostates. Jeffs forbids family members still in the church from speaking with them.

“I felt shamed,” said Doyle Dockstader, who was thrown out of his FLDS household in West Jordan at age 12 and later attempted suicide in the Utah State Prison. “Like not a human, man. I can’t explain it to you. It’s like taking everything you know 100 percent and then just ripping it away.”

Besides missing his family, Dockstader, now 41, worried he had lost his chance at heaven. FLDS members are taught their path to the Celestial Kingdom in the afterlife goes through their prophet.

“You literally think that you have no chance of salvation,” Dockstader said.

File photo of FLDS 'prophet' and convicted child-bride rapist Warren Jeffs, whose sentence was to be determined by a Texas jury hearing testimony Saturday. (The Salt Lake Tribune)

One person loyal to Jeffs believes the former members who die by suicide have done so because they have turned away from the FLDS faith. Maggie Jessop, who writes the blog “Teacher, Tailor, Trucker” and is one of the few FLDS members who speaks publicly about her beliefs, said she has heard of suicide only among former FLDS; not those who remain faithful.

“If people will follow [Jeffs’] teachings of faith and love even in part, they will not commit suicide,” Jessop wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Shannon Price, a social worker who is also director of The Diversity Foundation, which provides counseling, education and other resources to former FLDS members, said sect members are not taught to recognize mental illness.

“And their best counselor is God,” Price said.

FLDS members are taught to “keep sweet,” or defer to authority. That leads to a repression of emotions, Price said, and an unwillingness to talk about feelings.

Still, she cautions against placing too much blame on Jeffs. The suicide problem in the FLDS and ex-FLDS community, says Price, who has family in the sect, is a result of a culture built over multiple generations. It encourages traditional gender roles, trains people to focus on building the religious community and doesn’t provide them with coping skills.

“The church and the community, which is synonymous,” Price said, “provides you your passion. So, all of a sudden, you’re outside the community and you’ve lost what has provided you with your passion; your reason for living.”

New choices

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rowdy Reeve, a prevention specialist at Southwest Behavioral Health gives a presentation on suicide prevention Oct. 3, 2019, in Hildale, Utah.

On a Thursday night in October, Rowdy Reeve was working to prevent suicide in Short Creek.

Reeve, a prevention specialist at Southwest Behavioral Health Center, gave a “QPR” presentation to 21 people gathered in an office building in Hildale. The acronym stands for “question, persuade, refer.” While the program has not yet been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a proven method for suicide reduction, a coalition of mental health groups in southwest Utah has made QPR a centerpiece for mitigating the problem.

Reeve ran through a list of clues indicating someone is at risk for suicide. The tally includes an unwanted move; loss of a relationship; loss of financial security; fear of punishment; and a sudden interest or disinterest in religion.

That last one is a tough gauge to apply in Short Creek. FLDS members once comprised almost the entire community. Now, they’re thought to be a minority. Among former FLDS followers, some still worship together or with other polygamous groups. Others join a mainstream faith or turn away from religion altogether.

The other clues read like a checklist for suffering in the FLDS. Since ascending to the FLDS presidency in 2002, Jeffs has shuffled followers from Short Creek to compounds in Texas and the Midwest, often requiring devotees to leave behind children and spouses. For those still in Short Creek, legal problems have spurred many to move out of homes they long have occupied.

Many otherwise-loyal followers lose contact with family when Jeffs boots them out. Some choose to leave under the strain of Jeffs’ rules about where they live, whom they can see, even what they eat. Many leave the sect in debt and with bad credit after years of giving paychecks to the church.

Terrill Musser, a Jeffs’ nephew who is now a community activist in Short Creek, told Reeve that residents have to be careful how they talk to one another. So many people have suffered, Musser explained, that any reference to the past can trigger them.

“They wake up one day,” Musser said, “and say, ‘Everything I had is gone.’”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A young girl mimics the photographer while riding in the back of a truck in Hildale in 2014.

Musser was one of three men in the audience for the QPR training. Among the names of FLDS or ex-FLDS people who died by suicide, almost all are male, mirroring national statistics.

Price traces the reasons for the gender disparity to what both sexes are taught in the faith: Women are supposed to be focused on raising their children; men are expected to be providers and the religious authorities in the family.

Women who separate from the church often leave with at least some of their children — if they have any. So women’s roles don’t necessarily change, and they are still able to enjoy new opportunities like going to college or traveling.

But the men who leave the fold usually go without any children and tend not to operate as well with their independence, Price said. They miss the purpose they had before of providing for the family and building a community.

“The men and women in that community are raised in very traditional roles,” Price said, “more structured and defined than the general population.”

Social stigmas about polygamy and the FLDS can add to the isolation. Ian Jeffs, another nephew of the sect president, left the group in Short Creek at age 16 after one of the leaders told him he was no longer worthy to stay with his family.

He moved to the Wasatch Front, where someone would read or hear his last name and ask if he belonged to “those” Jeffs. That would set off his abandonment issues. He said he contemplated suicide until being hospitalized for depression and being referred to counseling.

“I just felt like I didn’t have any other avenues of escape,” Ian said, “that nobody cared about me, that nobody would miss me if I was gone.”

Unstable environments

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Richard Holm shows a photo of his late son, Brian Holm, on Oct. 4, 2019, in Hildale, Utah. Brian Holm died by suicide in 2018. One of Richard Holm's brothers, Darrel M. Holm, died by suicide in 2015.

Richard Holm has lost a brother and a son to suicide.

The brother, Darrel Holm, was married with four children when, in the early 1990s, then-FLDS President Rulon Jeffs ordered Darrel away from his family, Richard said. Darrel moved to Washington and was convicted of multiple crimes there, the climax coming in 2002, when a police officer in Mercer Island shot him in the leg as he was fleeing a bank he tried to rob. It was his fifth bank robbery in the Seattle area, according to news reports.

In all, Darrel served about 17 years in prison. On Nov. 17, 2015, he was living with family in Cannonville, Utah, when, according to a report from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, he told his brothers and other relatives living in the house that he loved them — a statement they found out of character.

Darrel Holm died later that day. He was 49.

Brian Holm was born to Richard Holm’s second wife. (At one point, Richard had three wives.) Jeffs evicted Richard from the FLDS in 2003 when Brian was 10.

The father eventually won shared custody of Brian and his six full siblings, but the legal battle was stressful on everyone. Richard now realizes all the signs of depression Brian showed as he got older and came to live with his dad. The son sometimes wouldn’t get out of bed to go to his construction job, and he was embarrassed about having to borrow money from his father.

Brian Holm died Dec. 27, 2018. He was 25.

“Brian’s a victim of a society that’s sick,” Richard said of the FLDS, “and I have to take some blame for that. He was born into that.”

Richard believes Short Creek needs more counseling services. He’s also learned that those showing signs of problems like Darrel and Brian need someone to intervene and encourage them to seek treatment.

Underlying issues

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2015, file photo, Roy Jeffs, son of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, speaks during an interview, in Salt Lake City. Roy Jeffs, 26-year-old man who spoke out against an infamous polygamous-sect leader who was also his father has died. Rachel Jeffs said Tuesday, June 4, 2019, her brother Roy was abused sexually and physiologically by their father Warren Jeffs and died by suicide on May 29. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The FLDS under Warren Jeffs has become synonymous headlines about sex abuse. Jeffs is serving a sentence in Texas of life in prison plus 20 years after being convicted of crimes related to his sexually abusing girls he married as plural wives. At least a half-dozen of Jeffs’ nieces, nephews, sons and daughters have accused him of molesting them as kids, too.

One of those nephews, Clayne Jeffs, died by suicide in 2002, and one of those sons, Roy Jeffs, died by suicide in May of this year.

Multiple studies have found childhood molestation plays a part in later suicide attempts among the general population. Price said there’s been no study to determine how prevalent sex abuse is in the FLDS, but she believes it is a factor in some of the suicides among current or former sect members.

There can be other types of trauma for kids growing up in the FLDS.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brothers Thomas and Doyle Dockstader both left the FLDS, suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, and considered suicide. Now they are talking about ways to help other ex-FLDS. They were photographed in West Jordan on Friday Oct. 18, 2019.

Brothers Doyle and Thomas Dockstader say their parents had nine kids together, and the brothers don’t feel as if they received enough attention. Their father’s second wife eventually moved away from the Dockstaders in West Jordan and relocated to Short Creek.

Then there was Rulon and Warren Jeffs’ recurring predictions of the Apocalypse and how only their faithful followers would be spared. “I thought, ‘Too bad the world is going to end when I’m 18,’” Thomas Dockstader said.

When the doomsday predictions didn’t come true, such as when the new millennium arrived without incident, the Jeffses would say it was because their congregation had sinned.

Doyle Dockstader said Warren Jeffs laid his hands on his head and gave him his priesthood blessing at age 12, making him a man within the faith. When he got home from church that day, the preteen told his father he didn’t want anything more to do with the religion. The boy left the house that day.

Thomas said he was devout until age 18. Then he decided his devotion wasn’t being rewarded, and he left.

Both brothers say the departures led to years of drug and alcohol abuse. Doyle served 20 years in prison for drug and theft crimes. He was being held in the Washington County jail in 2006 at the same time Warren Jeffs was there awaiting his own criminal trial.

Doyle said he didn’t speak to his former faith leader while locked up, but seeing him was enough. Jeffs’ presence was a factor in Doyle deciding to climb fences in an exercise yard and escape. He later was captured in Las Vegas. He credits a prison drug treatment program with turning his life around.

For his part, Thomas said he, too, thought about suicide before seeking counseling and getting sober.

After improving their mental health through counseling, the Dockstader brothers found high-salary jobs. Doyle manages a chemical company in West Jordan and has been a mentor in a drug-rehabilitation program; Thomas is in sales at a tech firm in Farmington.

Doyle is trying to start a podcast to reach former FLDS members spread across two countries. Thomas is writing a book. Both want to talk to former FLDS followers like themselves to let them know they can overcome negative feelings.

(Courtesy photo) Shannon Price, a social worker who also directs The Diversity Foundation.

Price said she has never had a former FLDS member attempt suicide after entering counseling, but she isn’t sure how to provide those services to a population so spread out.

“Suicide can be reduced,” Price said. “I don’t see that it will ever go away, Suicide is a symptom of the ailment. Until we have a solution for the ailment, we will have suicide.”

A grown man

Seth Cooke is now 62 or 63 — the date on his birth certificate makes him the younger age but that also would make him only four months older than his next full sibling. He says one of his brothers and two of his cousins — in addition to his son Justin — died by suicide.

Seth says he didn’t see the warning signs in his son. Justin was moody, but the father attributed it to all those fights and how his son felt as though he always had to be on guard.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Cindy Cooke heals at home, June 21, 2019, after a bone marrow transplant. Her brother Justin Cooke died by suicide in October 2015. The sister says her brother spoke of suicide often.

Justin was more forthcoming with his sister Cindy Cooke, who says he spoke a lot about taking his life. “When he died,” she said, “he hadn’t been out of his house in weeks.”

Justin and a girlfriend had two daughters, and then the couple split. At the time of his death, his new girlfriend was pregnant with another daughter. A sheriff’s deputy found Justin’s body at his home Oct. 15, 2015. He was 31. His daughter was born four days later.

Seth Cooke now wishes he had made Justin talk about his feelings but also wonders whether he could have.

“He’s a grown man,” the father said. “You can’t just barge in his house and grab him by the ear.”

Special resources

For current or former FLDS members with thoughts of suicide or other mental health problems, there are some specific organizations to help. Wherever you live, the organizations will help you find a local provider.