August 10th, 2011
02:20 PM ET

Warren Jeffs’ life sentence raises questions about future of breakaway sect

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.

A fundamentalist Mormon polygamy primer

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.

soundoff (208 Responses)
  1. Joni54

    Has any of you read, Church of Lies. I am reading it right now and wow the stuff that is in there. There is more then Jeffs who should go to jail.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • B Reed

      I might be convinced to read it if you, the reader, could manage to write at least one sentence using proper English.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  2. Cid Matamoros

    Any Muslim cleric can replace Warren Jeffs as leader of the polygamist sect, both share some of the same principles except for the violence and hatred. In fact, they can exchange concubines perhaps 2 for 1.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  3. Jerry

    Church members should turn to God and He will lead them out of the bondage that is Mormonism. Put your full faith and trust in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord & Savior. Trust in Jesus and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free!

    August 10, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • TheyNotHim

      What "truth"? All I read in the bible are lies, lies, lies...

      August 10, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  4. pb

    What is CNN thinking or writing? CNN makes this cult sound just normal and acceptable. This cult has existed 30 years under the watchful eyes of AZ and UT. Jeff's controlled many hundreds of thousands of dollars in school money, food stamps, welfare, aid to dependent children, you name it. It is still thriving thanks to all that money and it should be abolished, but money talks.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      CNN is telling the same story many other outlets are telling. Go read someplace else if you don't like it.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  5. mo

    New leader...hmmm...Chris Hansen from NBC?

    August 10, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Chris Hansen

      "All Rise..."

      "... All can have a seat, right over there..."

      August 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • dumbfounded

      Who will rise up to lead a group of obedient brainwashed female virgin slaves?
      ANSWER: A MAN!!!
      They are like Jehovah's Witnesses on Viagra.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  6. Care

    How come all the priests are not sentenced to life? And the Pope? He should be hanged.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  7. mocha moore

    Hopefully, not another PERVERT/ PEDOPHYLE!!!

    August 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Jimbo

      The new leader will be perverting the minds of these indivduals regardless. What a bunch of idiots.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Truth Teller

    Society needs to be protected from these perverts

    August 10, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  9. Jimbo

    How do people become so stupid? I called BS when I was in 5th grade at catholic school and there are adults that will hand over their 12 year old girl to some rapist that says god talks to him. Don't let these inbred idiots breed any longer.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  10. childrenfirst

    Every guardian involves in that scam should be prosecuted for child abuse and neglect . Jeff should not be the only one going to jail . How could a guardian sleep knowing your underage child is going to be mutilated by a pedophile .
    This is unbelievable !!! this man should get death penalty ,life sentence is not enough .BC he killed the souls of those children and took their innocence away when he should have been the one protecting them . Why he had to go after chidren when he could get all the grown ones ? You want to be polygamist be it with women they can give you consent but leave the children out of that .

    August 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Frogist

      @childrenfirst: He "killed the souls" of the victims?! Can souls be killed? Esp by someone else? And does that mean these kids are walking around with no souls? Just when I thought this Jeffs FLDS thing couldn't get more confusing.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  11. Ed

    Maybe Geithner can take over.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  12. hingedlwnb

    The only sects Jeffs will have to worry about in prison is butt sects.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • mocha moore


      August 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Jimbo


      August 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  13. timd

    They got Dahmer. They'll get lil' Jeffy.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  14. Paul NYC

    Do we really need "sects" in this modern world? Aren't we done with this sort of nonsense yet?

    August 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  15. john

    religion is just stupid ! I hope they shank him slowly and he dies a painful death....sick!

    August 10, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  16. john

    Bend over preacher .... this might hurt the first time !

    August 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  17. mizsherle

    He shouldn't be allowed that many phone calls per month. It's too great a luxury for an offender of his level. He still poses a threat with his influence over gullible followers and should be silenced because there is no reason or excuse for him to have any rights.

    August 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  18. Bayousara

    Well, of course Warren Jeffs will continue running his FLDS and dictating to his "flock." That is because our absurd legal system allows him even while in jail to have all the rights and privileges of citizenship, including buying thousands of dollars worth of phone cards to keep in touch with the flock, tell them what to do and when to do it, including tossing out naughty fathers from their homes and giving their wives to some other sick guy, etc. etc. etc. ASK LAW ENFORCEMENT, folks! Why does Jeffs have these rights as a convict??????????????

    August 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • JoeBob

      He doesn't. Please re-read the article, carefully this time.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • B Reed

      The Texas State of Corrections system will allow him all due rights and nothing else. Why? Because they know some sort of appeal is probably coming, and they do not want to give him fuel for his fire.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  19. JT

    This guy is just a pervert using religion as a cover. Just praying on the weak minded.

    August 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Bayousara

      You don't mean "praying," you mean "preying." Look those two words up.

      August 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • No:9133284

      Seems to work both ways in this case

      August 10, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      No both words do not work the context is clear Preying is the right word.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • B Reed

      I do not mean to seem shallow, but I simply cannot resist the play on words: Perhaps he is praying while he is preying.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  20. brako

    I will lead, dude im the best leader. all those chicks, hell yeah

    August 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Me

      im knot shure wat u mene

      August 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.