Warren Jeffs was born and raised within the cult he later went on to lead: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
For years, the cult was shrouded in secrecy, its inner workings a closely guarded secret that allowed for systemic abuse. What is known, thanks to police raids and the accounts of former members who have come forward, is that it has a history of human trafficking, marriages involving ‘child brides’ and incest.
The FLDS is one of the largest polygamous organisations in the United States. The branch states that men must have plural marriages in order to get into heaven. Needless to say, this works one way: the women serve the men. Jeffs preached that this meant a minimum of three wives and the more a man had, the closer he was to heaven.
The son of the church’s leader and prophet, Rulon Jeffs, Warren had an active role within the community even before he ruled it.
Rulon Jeffs had become prophet of the church in 1986 and when he did so, he changed the structure so he was its sole leader and president. He had 22 wives and was thought to have fathered around 80 children. Warren was the golden child. When Rulon became ill and died in 2002, Warren took over.
Warren suggested that he was the reincarnated form of his father and became its new president and prophet. He took control over the FLDS compound known as Short Creek, an area comprising the neighbouring cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.
Jeffs dominated every last aspect of life, deciding everything from the clothes members could wear to the toys that could be played with. A number of male members were excommunicated for disobedience and when they were, their wives, families and homes were reassigned to other male members. The mayor of Colorado City faced the same treatment.
As prophet, Jeffs and Jeffs alone had the authority to conduct marriages and unsurprisingly, he wielded this power. It didn’t take him long to declare his father’s wives his own. Only two escaped this fate, one fleeing the compound altogether and the other refusing (she was banned from remarrying anyone else).
He didn’t limit his choice of brides to his father’s widows, either. A 12-year-old girl told investigators of her marriage to him. During the ceremony, she was placed on a ceremonial bed and raped, while a collection of his other wives watched.
Sexual assault of minors was rife. Jeffs would later face charges of accomplice to rape after he married a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin and this was symptomatic of life within Short Creek: children were taken as wives of much older men, who were often their relatives. (As of 2017, Short Creek descendants are reported to have a high number of cases of the genetic condition fumarase deficiency, caused by generations of polygamous inbreeding.)
Sexual assault of minors was rife
It was only two years into his rule when the law caught up with Jeffs. The men he had thrown out of the community (often unable to communicate with the now reassigned families they’d left behind) filed a lawsuit against him in 2004 and later that same year, his nephew Brent Jeffs accused him of sexual assault. Brent claims he was only five or six at the time when his uncle abused him, other men joining in. Two of Jeffs’ other nephews then made similar claims, with one of them, Clayne Jeffs, committing suicide.
Jeffs is a rampant paedophile; his own children have spoken out publicly about the abuse they were subjected to by their father as children and more recently, another woman accused Jeffs and other members of the church of assaulting her when she was eight.
Managing to evade arrest (although still making appearances to conduct the child marriages), he was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Lists in 2006.
In August of that year, Jeffs was finally found and arrested. He had been carrying $55,000, numerous computers and mobile phones and several disguises, including sunglasses and wigs.
In 2007, he was sent to prison, but thanks to incorrect jury instructions, the conviction was overturned in 2010. He was extradited to Texas, where he was found guilty again and sentenced to life in prison, plus 20 years.
But even a prison sentence wasn’t enough to break Jeffs’ hold over his followers. Despite stepping down as their president, his title as prophet still stands and while the community might be splintering, he is still exacting control.