Skip to main content

The serial abuser and so-called prophet of the FLDS Church

Warren Jeffs with eight female members of the FLDS whose faces have been blurred
Image: Warren Jeffs with eight anonymous female members of the FLDS Church | Secrets of Polygamy

Secrets of Polygamy exposes the shocking realities of life within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to reveal how powerful men hold sway over thousands through fear and absolute rule.

Secrets of Polygamy is available to stream now on Crime + Investigation Play.

How was Warren Jeffs, regarded by his followers as a divinely chosen prophet whose every whim reflected the will of God, unmasked as a remorseless abuser?

Ruling with an iron fist

It was in 2002 that Warren Jeffs became the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an offshoot of the Mormon Church which, unlike mainstream Mormonism, still practices polygamy. The group had previously been led by Warren’s father, Rulon Jeffs, who was thought to have had at least 20 wives at the time of his death, aged 92.

One of the younger Jeffs’ first acts as leader was to marry most of his father’s wives. He also wasted no time in re-shaping the FLDS flock, who largely resided in the isolated community of Short Creek on the Utah/Arizona border.

Warren Jeffs was far more stringent and puritanical than his father, effectively outlawing the very concept of fun. There were to be no more parties or parades, no camping excursions, no toys or television. Women, who had always been expected to keep their bodies covered, now had to give up denim or colourful prints. Instead, they were required to wear prairie dresses and long underwear covering their entire bodies, with their hair immaculately braided at all times.

As the perceived prophet of God (not to mention the boss of a religious organisation which owned the Short Creek land and took a slice of everybody’s income), the word of Warren Jeffs was never to be questioned. Especially when it came to marriages in the close-knit world of the FLDS.

The heat closes in

Warren Jeffs had the final say on how women in the community would be ‘assigned’. In other words, who they would marry and have children with. Older men would regularly be assigned numerous wives, while many younger males were excommunicated from the community, becoming known as ‘lost boys’, because there weren’t enough females to go around.

While the FLDS had previously flown under the radar of the authorities, Warren Jeffs’ authoritarian rule and rumours that he was pairing underage girls with much older men, brought Short Creek increased scrutiny from journalists and officials. In response, the prophet became a growingly distant and spectral figure, turning his attention to a new FLDS base being built a thousand miles away, near the remote town of Eldorado, Texas.

Known as the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, its centrepiece was a vast white temple, looming out of the sun-scorched landscape like a surreal apparition. The mysterious goings-on at this outpost later played a vital part in Warren Jeffs’ downfall.

The fugitive prophet

By 2005, Warren Jeffs was wanted on charges relating to sexual assault and arranging marriages involving underage girls, and in 2006 he was officially added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. It later transpired that, far from hiding away, Jeffs was thoroughly enjoying his time on the run, accompanied by his favourite wife and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a week.

While his flock carried on conforming to their stripped-back, fun-free lifestyle, Jeffs was attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans, posing for photos at Disney World, and sneaking out to strip clubs. But his incognito joyrides across the United States came to an abrupt end in August 2006, when semi-obscured licence plates led a Nevada state trooper to pull his vehicle over. The fugitive prophet was sat in the back, munching on a salad, surrounded by wigs, sunglasses, mobile phones and wads of cash.

Caging the abuser

A year after his arrest, Jeffs was put on trial in Utah for forcing a 14-year-old female member of the FLDS to marry her cousin, an act which made him an accomplice to rape. Found guilty, Jeffs was told he would serve at least 10 years, though this conviction was later overturned when the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the jury had been improperly instructed by the trial judge.

But this didn’t mean much for Jeffs, because he was facing even more serious charges of sexual assault, thanks to crucial evidence obtained from the secretive YFZ ranch in Texas.

The property had been dramatically raided by armed cops in 2008, in response to a phone call from someone purporting to be a teenage girl being abused by the FLDS. The call turned out to have been a hoax, and the optics of menacing SWAT team officers leading women and children out of the ranch had led to some public cynicism about the raid. Even so, the debacle had finally given investigators a chance to explore the fortress-like temple.

Here, they uncovered a squalid treasure trove of evidence against Jeffs, including photographs of the prophet kissing underage brides and audio tape of him ‘initiating’ a girl in front of his other wives. This evidence proved crucial when Jeffs was tried for child sexual assault in Texas in 2011.

In the words of Texas state prosecutor Eric Nichols, ‘To hear Warren Jeffs giving her instruction in the way that he did about the things that he wanted her to do and to hear her plaintive voice, her quiet, halting voice, we had jurors that were literally in tears.’

Attempting in vain to portray himself as a Christian martyr being victimised for his religion, Jeffs was found guilty and sentenced to life behind bars. Though he won’t be eligible for parole until 2038, Jeffs is still the leader of the FLDS – a situation that isn’t likely to change until the day he dies.