August 10th, 2011
02:20 PM ET
By David Fitzpatrick and Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) - As he begins serving a life sentence in the Texas State Prison system, Warren Jeffs still maintains titular control over his estimated 10,000 fundamentalist followers in Arizona, Utah and Texas. But how long that control will endure is anyone’s guess.
Jeffs was convicted by a jury in San Angelo, Texas last week on two counts of sexually assaulting children. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to life in prison on one count and 20 years in jail on the other.
He was shaved bald and will be processed into the prison system in the next 10 days, according to a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Even while awaiting trial in two small county jails in Texas, authorities said Jeffs was able to effectively remain in charge of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by using jail telephones to communicate with followers.
Sheriffs in both counties told CNN that Jeffs had spent up to $3,000 a month in phone cards purchased by his acolytes.
Officials who monitored the calls said Jeffs would preach lengthy Sunday sermons, excommunicating those who failed to follow his instructions.
But as a convicted sex offender, Jeffs will be able to telephone only 10 people a month, and those people must be pre-registered on a visitors’ list, according to Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Clark says those calls will be limited to 15 minutes each - or a total of 240 minutes per month.
As for who might take his place as head of the breakaway Mormon sect, experts who have followed Jeffs for years say it’s unclear.
One potential candidate is Willie E. Jessop, a former close aide to Jeffs, who told CNN earlier this year that Jeffs had lost legitimacy because of the sexual abuse charges against him.
“We wanted him so bad to be good that we were willing to condone his dereliction of people,” Jessop told reporters in Texas after Jeffs’ convictions. “We built this golden calf. Now, we have to decide: Do we love God or do we love the golden calf?”
Jessop recently said he’s not interested in assuming the job of leader, but some FLDS experts doubt he’d refuse the role.
Private investigator Sam Brower, who has followed the FLDS for nearly a decade, says that Jeffs’ younger brother, Lyle, could become the next so-called prophet of the FLDS.
“Lyle Jeffs is Warren’s main man,” Brower recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “He’s the guy who’s going to be next. He’s already taking over.”
According to Anne Wilde, a spokeswoman for Principle Voices, a Utah-based organization that educates the public about polygamy, the decision about who becomes the next prophet of the FLDS Church is Jeffs' alone.
In fundamentalist Mormon groups, the senior member of a priesthood council traditionally assumes the position of prophet, Wilde said.
But it didn’t work that way when Jeffs took over. Wilde said Warren Jeffs assumed the role of FLDS prophet when his father, Rulon Jeffs, fell ill and later died.
“I’ll be very surprised if he steps down because he’s in prison,” Wilde said of Warren Jeffs. “My guess is he’ll try to maintain control through someone else on the outside, at least for a while.”
If Jeffs were to appoint someone, she thinks it would be his brother Lyle, though she worries control by him might mean more of the same.
“He’s very similar in terms of his power and control issues,” she said.
Brower, the private investigator, says most FLDS members in Arizona and Utah are unaware of the details of Jeffs’ Texas trial, largely because he instructed them not to use the internet, watch television or listen to the radio during the proceedings.
Many followers, Brower said, had been told the trial was a sham.
But members of the FLDS Church are not as sheltered and out-of-the-loop as many people think, said Ken Driggs, a Georgia attorney has written extensively about the FLDS church and who counts many of its members as friends
Since 1988, Driggs has been in and out of the FLDS community, speaking to members often, mailing them articles and answering their questions.
When he last visited the community in Colorado City, Arizona, in May, he said everyone was “still hopeful” that Jeffs would beat the charges against him, but he warned them that they needed to start thinking ahead.
Since last week’s convictions, Driggs said, “There’s a great sadness and depression.”
“They’re in a grieving process. Something important to them has died,” said Driggs, a sixth-generation practicing Mormon and has two generations of polygamists in his family tree.
“It will take them a while to adjust to a new reality,” he said. “But they’re not going to dissipate and wander off to join other groups. At some point they will coalesce around new leadership.”
Leaders of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have repeatedly disavowed Jeffs and say his group of roughly 10,000 followers in no way represents their religion.
The official LDS church banned polygamy more than a century ago.
The LDS Church ended the practice of plural marriage, how Mormons refer to polygamy, in 1890. Various break-away groups of fundamentalist Mormons continue the practice; the FLDS Church is just one of them. There are also independent families built around plural marriages.
All told there are about 38,000 people, mostly in the western U.S., who count themselves as fundamentalist Mormons, according to Wilde, the Principle Voices spokeswoman.
And those like her, who have nothing to do with the FLDS Church, are adamant that they not be lumped with Jeffs’ followers.
“Please don’t paint us with the same brush,” said Wilde, 75, who is “relieved” by the latest turn in the Jeffs saga.
“I’m glad that he will be put away so that he can’t repeat those vicious crimes,” she said. “It’s too bad he can’t give back the lives to these poor girls.”
Officials in both Utah and Canada also say they will begin active investigations into other allegations against Jeffs, using evidence introduced at trial in Texas.
Canadian authorities told CNN that once the Texas trial was over, they would begin gathering evidence of a sex-trafficking ring from an FLDS compound in British Columbia to FLDS enclaves in both Arizona and Texas.
As for Jeffs’ long prison sentence, Brower said that many FLDS members will use it as an example of “martyrdom,” which could ensure that he at least remains a figurehead of the sect.
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