Ex-FLDS moms say their kids have gone missing since Warren Jeffs’ latest revelation from prison

They’re calling on police to investigate and not simply see the children as runaways.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lorraine Jessop speaks about her three missing children at a news conference to draw attention to missing FLDS children in Cedar City on Monday, April 17, 2023.

Cedar City • The mothers took turns talking about their kids who have disappeared over the last year — three boys who never came home from a basketball game, another boy who left behind his favorite yellow measuring tape, a girl who’d been wearing the first dress she sewed, a 12-year-old about to celebrate his birthday with candles that never got lit.

For one mom, it has been 72 days since she’d last tucked in her children and woke to find empty beds. Monday marked 170 days for another, who has kept track down to the minute of the last time she saw her boys.

Together, they clung to framed school photos, hugging and crying outside the town courthouse here in southern Utah, outlined against redrock cliffs as they explained that they believe a religion they were once a part of has lured their kids away.

“They are not safe,” said Elizabeth Roundy, who reported her 16-year-old daughter missing on Jan. 1. “They are being taken, coerced, kidnapped or told to run away from us. And law enforcement isn’t doing anything to help.”

The mothers are all former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous offshoot of the mainstream Mormon faith that has historically been based on the border of Utah and Arizona in an area called Short Creek. The mothers say the children have been “helped” by some faithful FLDS members there to disavow their parents, who have left the church, and to return to the sect alone.

They point to a purported revelation from imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting girls he had married. In August, they allege, his son Helaman Jeffs passed along Warren Jeffs’ call for young members to come back to the faith over the next five years to become “pure” so they can go to the “Celestial Kingdom.”

One mother shared a copy of what the group alleges is the message written down by Helaman Jeffs. That document said the kids “must die” soon, as the world is coming to an end, and they will gain salvation.

The mothers said they are worried that their kids are in danger, and they are asking police to not simply see the children as runaways.

“When will this be treated as it is? This is child trafficking. This is kidnapping,” alleged Lorraine Jessop, whose three kids disappeared from her house in Cedar City on Feb. 4.

The mothers spoke out for the first time Monday at a news conference organized by Holding Out Help, a nonprofit that helps individuals leaving polygamy. Some carried journals from when they had been members of the FLDS faith, detailing abuse they say they suffered.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leandra Black and her siblings hold the journals she kept while being held away from her family, at a news conference to draw attention to missing FLDS children, in Cedar City on Monday, April 17, 2023. With her are her siblings Kaelee Black and Kaden Black.

Many of the children described as missing have a parent who has left the sect, and some have a parent who is still in the faith and has fought for custody, the women said.

Jessop said she left in 2020 after her husband died. When parents leave the FLDS, she said, they are generally expected to go without their kids, who are considered property of the religion. Jessop initially left her kids with a trusted sister wife, she said, but recently got custody of them and moved them in with her in January.

She said they were having a hard time adjusting, and she hoped they’d settle in with time. She believes they left her home in the middle of the night to go back, feeling compelled to by Jeffs’ message.

Police, she said, have told her there is nothing they can do.

Roger Hoole, a private attorney representing some of the mothers, said he knows of at least eight kids who have gone missing from parents who believe their departure is connected to the revelation. The mothers said they believe the revelation may be, in part, a response to Samuel Bateman, a former follower who has recently claimed to be replacing Warren Jeffs as prophet.

The kids, Hoole said, apparently believe their salvation depends on them obeying. “These kids have been brainwashed,” he alleged.

‘No idea’ where the kids are

The parents said they have heard that the kids were gathering somewhere they’re calling “Zion’s Camp.” It’s unclear if that’s in Utah, Hoole said. Recently, a member of the faith — Heber Jeffs, a relative of Warren Jeffs — was arrested in North Dakota for allegedly kidnapping a niece. She was later found by police and returned to her parents.

The girl’s father stood on the perimeter of the event in Cedar City on Monday, staying mostly quiet except to wish a few parents luck in locating their kids.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Johnson talks about her missing son at a news conference to draw attention to missing FLDS children, in Cedar City on Monday, April 17, 2023.

“They could be anywhere,” Jessop said. “We have no idea.”

In the last year, girls who were claimed by Bateman as wives were taken into state custody when he was arrested on charges of destroying evidence. They were then allegedly kidnapped by his adult wives and taken to Washington state, where they were found by law enforcement. Bateman and his wives were then charged in a separate case for kidnapping.

Jessop believes her three youngest kids were persuaded to leave her home by their older siblings, who remain members of the FLDS faith. She said her 16-year-old son remained in contact with his older siblings, and she found walkie talkies, pocket knives and rolls of bandages among his things after he left. She suspects his older siblings provided them.

“I know these kids were under extreme pressure,” she said. The teen took along his 13-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother, she said.

Jessop held up pictures of the kids. The oldest teen, she said, towered over her at 6 feet, loved sheep and cows and had a knack for remembering any phone number he’d ever heard. Her daughter loved creating her own prairie dresses, the ones traditionally worn by women in the FLDS faith, in every color — especially orange.

Her younger son was quiet and independent and his birthday came a few days after the kids left. Jessop had planned on baking him a cake, though she wasn’t sure what flavor yet. “He loved all of them,” she said with a sad smile.

Jessop said she woke on the morning of Feb. 5, noticing how cold her house was. She found the front door left open and the kids gone.

She wiped tears with a crumpled tissue. “I miss them. And I want them safe,” she said. “If you can hear me,” she said, addressing them, “come back. Come back to me. I love you.”

Asking for help

Roundy said her daughter ran away on Jan. 1 from their Idaho home. She held a picture of her in a blue prairie dress. Like the other mothers, she said, the police have told her the same thing: They can’t do much to help.

Roundy left the FLDS in 2014 and moved to Idaho; her husband has remained a follower of the faith, even though he was also expelled in 2012. She has custody of her daughter and waved those court papers as she spoke Monday. She said she believes the girl is with her dad, who wants to appease FLDS leaders and get back in. Roundy hopes the court will help her get her daughter back.

She had her daughter at her house for about a year and a half, and said she hopes that her daughter “remembers the freedom” of being outside. Her daughter, Roundy said, loves to bake donuts and bread, and had five fish tanks at their home, with each of the critters inside named after her cousins.

Mirinda Johnson hugged tight to Roundy as they finished speaking. The mothers said they have found some comfort in each other as they have tried to find their children.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carlie Pipkin and Gladys Wayman embrace Sarah Johnson after she talked about her missing son at a news conference to draw attention to missing FLDS children in Cedar City on Monday, April 17, 2023.

Johnson’s three boys disappeared on Oct. 29 in Utah County. They had been excited to go to a physical fitness competition that was going to happen that day, but that morning, they started acting strange, Johnson said. They refused to go.

A few hours later, she said, the boys told her they were going to play basketball at a nearby park, which they often did when she went to work. They never came back.

The boys — 16, 14 and 12 — vanished.

Johnson said she was told to leave the FLDS community in 2016. She said she has been fighting for custody of the boys for months.

She originally moved with the boys to Idaho after leaving the southern Utah community. In 2020, she wanted them to have a relationship with their father, so she moved back to Lehi.

After a visit in 2020, though, she said their father refused to return the boys. He didn’t let her take them back home with her until July 2022, when the court granted her full temporary custody, she said.

By then, though, she said: “They were turned against me.” She believes they were taught to view her as an apostate, a member who is kicked out of the faith. Johnson said she also thinks they were coached to run away.

She called police in American Fork, who last tracked the boys’ phones in Beaver, heading south toward Short Creek, she said.

Johnson stood in Cedar City on Monday, about 60 miles away from the community she used to know.

Her oldest son could recite any statistic from the NFL and was ready to graduate early; he used to surprise her with flowers he bought with his own money. Her middle boy liked to write down lists of people he loved in a little heart-shaped notebook. Her youngest loved cuddling and spelling and showing his brothers he could keep up with them.

“I don’t know if they’re OK,” she said. “I just need to find my boys. Please help me find my boys.”