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. Charly Brains

    I quote: "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.
    Come on! the LDS church doesn't practice poligamy anymore because they didn't want to be in serious problems with the Federal Government but it's a command written in the sacred books they have which were written and inspired by their prophet and founder "Joseph Smith": Those books: "The Book of Mormon (another testament of Jesus Christ)", "The Pearl of Great price" and "Doctrines and Covenants" are the same books the FLDS read and follow so for me, LDS and FLDS are the same thing with different prophet/president.

    August 10, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Thinkformyself

      I was raised in that cult and they teach that polygamy will be the case in the next life!!!!!! So, perhaps you should get off your soap box and study your own religion better.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Michael

      So... reading the same books means they are the same thing? If that were the case, there would only be a single christian church since they all read the Bible.

      I think your logic is flawed.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Mei

      The problem I have with this case is that it has been going on SO long that there has to be others within the sect who know about the abuse and did nothing. Plus, given the high regard for this man, it would seem likely that there are other offenders within the sect. The police need to investigate further, especially those who knew about the child brides and did nothing. I can see the women being brainwashed and even the boys told that is "normal" and grow up to abuse girls too. But at some point, at the age of reason (or a little beyond for some people), a person knows that abuse is wrong. The natural law makes one know deep down that it is seriously wrong.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Emmanuel Goldstien

      You do realize that the bible promotes slavery, r@ pe, incest and murder for things like touching pig skin or working on Sunday. So, in your book, ALL Christians 'deep down' believe all those things should be brought back, right?

      August 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Michael: Actually, yes, they are all the same thing if they all follow the same book. That's why we call them "christian". That's also why FLDS and LDS are all mormons. And why mormons are also christians.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  2. TheObvious

    Religion and the religious would be funny like a dog that chases shadows or people with toilet paper on their shoe ... if it wasn't for all the people they hurt. I love how so called normal christians or mormons look at other very similar sects as if they are full of wing-nuts. As if adults believing in an invisible dude that judges them doesn't make them wing-nuts too. Don't forget to hate on a gay dude today for no reason and be sure to tune-in to Rush/O'Reily/Beck

    August 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  3. BRod

    Who will lead now? Probably another pedophile!

    August 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Jesus

      Hopefully Jeffs won't be allowed enough phone calls to control his empire from prison.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Brenda

      *sigh* Hebophile

      August 10, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Lesieie

      Nope. Tiger Woods.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  4. JennyTX

    What about the parents of those two girls? Shouldn't they be charged with knowingly giving their daughters to a child rapist? Someone needs to go after a lot of FLDS parents.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Brenda

      Ala Patty Hurst?

      August 10, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  5. Breaking News!!!

    It has just been learnt that the new sect is being taken over by the Atheist group.
    The leader Mr. Idontexist gave a press conferance with plans and details on the meaningless of life. Further details are forthcoming from Mr Idontexist.

    Please standby for news updates!!!

    As usuall we at CNN always bring you the latest...

    August 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Hey, that's one of the most witless attempts at wit in the history of posting! Congrats!

      August 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • frank

      Did this seem humorous in your head when you typed it?

      August 10, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Reporter1

      Mr Idontexist, are your the grandson of Mr Iknowmarxist?

      Could you also confirm for us if you will be applying the following ideology to the new sect?

      "Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand."

      in line with the above are you going to be allocating resources equally?

      August 10, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Frogist

      Well at least it's an attempt at humour... not a very good one since they don't seem to know much about the subject. But they gave it the old elementary school try!

      August 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  6. Roy

    First the conduct demonstrated is in total contravention of the Holy Scriptures. Secondly the organization and its people need to immediately disband and evaluate their relationship with the true God Jehovah, the creator of all things as stated in the scriptures. Third this kind of activity will continue and mislead many people. Fourth those who conduct themselves in this fashion and lead a life that is not acceptable according to Scripture and Jehovah will eventually be confronted when alive or as promised in the scriptures their will be a resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous that will be given a chance to come to terms as to Gods plan and how we should conduct ourselves. It simply a matter of time for we do not know the day or hour that God will address all issues.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • ReplaceWhy

      God, if referring to the Eternal Infinite, has better things to do. And such a being never wrote any scriptures, man did ... inspired by what he interpreted to be "God". Man may evolve slow, but I think the earliest man caught on pretty quick that dead (or not breathing on this Earth) was a vast amount of time next to living and breathing on this earth. And other men quickly evolved with the logic that power on earth is temporal and if one has no fear of death, that weakens the power over such a person. Most however cling on because of hope of something better than the hell on earth.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Lesieie

      Wow. When did God abdicate and give you the lightning bolts?

      August 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  7. Robin

    So when do they start their investigations of all those other male members of the FLDS who are continuing the pedophilia? They all need to be put in jail.
    And, as for the cult vs. religion thing, ALL religions are cults – look up the definitions. Some just have more members.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Brenda

      again: Hebophilia.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  8. ReplaceWhy

    This was the leader. This was accepted amongst their church community. So my logic is wondering why would you replace Jeffs with another one of his type? Why do I not think this sect, cult, religion, scam, whatever is going to be any different and those blind within that community are so by choice and are not taking the blinders off. I don't buy, that's all.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Replace Why: Exactly! Replace an egomaniac with pedophile tendencies with another egomaniac with pedophile tendencies and you get the same thing. As someone else said, they didn't arrest the parents who willingly gave up their kids. So most likely they will be A-OK with offering them up to their new prophet/leader/dirt-bag. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out. What can the authorities do? Very little. Keep monitoring the cult, maybe? I don't know.
      My best hope is that his successor will simply not be as charismatic, threatening, scary enough to carry on with the same old practices. Or there will be someone even more attractive in personality who can reform this group so that they won't engage in the ritual child abuse. Or the members will realize the error of their ways, say 'No more!', and move on accordingly. So far only the first option seems in any way plausible.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. E J

    Please take Warren Jeffs phone and television and all means of communications away from him. He can sit and read the bible everyday forever and ever amen.

    How will we ever be able to make the poor abused people whole again? It is so very sad these days and times. We must protect them from the cult existance.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  10. klarg

    Wilfred Romney will be looking for work after the election.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  11. yada

    @ anti christian and end religion: OK guys...time to pull your heads out of your a$$es!

    August 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  12. BL

    God said to Lucifer, "You know, I'm thinking of starting a religion." Lucifer replied, "Let me organize it for you!"

    August 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • ReplaceWhy

      I like that ... what you wrote. Don't recall I ever heard it before, yet it's as if I had. I can meditate on that one.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  13. Thomas

    It's time for the lies to stop. That man Jeffs, with his father Roulon, brought a lot of misery to people that deserve better. He is an animal and a pedofile. He should be shot. Prophet of God? That man?
    These people should be educated what the bible says, and who was their founder Joseph Smith.
    He started this cult for money and nothing else. The same as Charls Taze Russell of the JWs.
    Now people are suffering because of these two chits.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • milo60

      He is where he's supposed to be. Let his suffer the consequences.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Michael

      Joseph Smith started his church for money? How did you reach that conclusion?

      My understanding is that he was dirt poor his whole life, gave all the money that came in to the church to poor people emigrating from other places, and then was murdered after he wouldn't recant his testimony. All that to get rich?

      I've heard a lot of things about Joseph Smith, but this is a new one.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  14. mark chambless

    Who will lead now? Satan will quickly select a new pervert to lead this group.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Debasis


      August 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  15. Art

    With all the crazy antics and crimes committed by EVERY religious group around the world , it makes you wonder if religion is actually the tool of the so called " DEVIL ". Time to stop worshiping what doesn't exist and supporting these fantasy beliefs. If there was a GOD I don't think he would have created evil such as man.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Debasis

      You have seen the light while most Americans have not. They can only see their bible for answers.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • beelzabarber

      Agreed Art! Religion is the root of all evil, just put in place to control man and scare them into behaving. Come on people, grow up

      August 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • ReplaceWhy

      It really makes you wonder how man for eons shuddered under religion fearing to question, fearing eternity, and fearing their selves. I understand the quest for enlightenment and believing in purpose, but clutching with fear is crazy. I still wrestle with it at 50 years old. I question my own belief of not partaking. I wish I could have stayed partaking in the religion I was raised with but I know it's not Truth as they believe. Yet ... one has to wonder again of someone who believes in something so much or at least so in love with power to be a leader of a belief with claims on Christianity to commit such crimes with no fear or guilt. Wouldn't that be sociopathic?

      August 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Kalliope

      Satan's plan is working really well: create enough false religions that Christ's true path is obscured and people 'throw the baby out with the bath." Christ's church has been re-established through Joseph Smith, which individuals can discover if they get past Satan's subterfuges. Visit mormon.org for answers, rather than listening to atheists or those Satan has drafted to deceive you.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics


      Satan's plan is working really well: create enough false religions that Christ's true path is obscured and people 'throw the baby out with the bath." Christ's church has been re-established through Joseph Smith, which individuals can discover if they get past Satan's subterfuges. Visit mormon.org for answers, rather than listening to atheists or those Satan has drafted to deceive you.
      Yeah your joey was a con artist with a criminal history. Your faith is not in a christ or god it is in Joseph Smith.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Michael

      You are telling Kalliope what he/she believes? How could you possibly know? This is a classic symptom of a closed-minded person.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

      With all the crazy antics and crimes committed by EVERY secularized despotic group around the world , it makes you wonder if secularism is actually the tool of the so called " DEVIL ". Time to stop young adolesnces of despotic secularisms from becoming the dumb me down Alphas on the Darwinian cusps of 'evolved' propagandorial Paganisms unbecoming the Lord and King of all the Gods manifested by GOD the Creator of all things relevent for the sustaining of Higher Morals and even keeled Scruples that only is found in the books related to all philosophies and is rooted firmly by anceint texts we know of as the Torah, the Doctrines of the Jewish People. No Other piece of writing has ever been matched in its' History as having such a prominant factor in all of mankind's history than Jewish Scriptures

      For 'Art' to surmize saying, "If there was a GOD I don't think he would have created evil such as man." GOD oh thought filled Art manifested 1stly His Sons; the Gods of GOD's Desires and GOD's Sons did the creation bit of Creating all we know of as and about Life and Life Forms. The 'evil such as man' is found in the Works man has made manifest and not man as being 'evil'.as you do conjure up.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Kalliope

      No...I don't believe Joseph Smith atoned for me, as Christ did. JS was a strong young man chosen to re-establish Christ's church on earth because man had changed it to the point that truth was hard to find. (Parts of the truth are in many religions–including Judaism–, but the pieces are put back together so we can get the whole picture.)
      And God created all of us, but gave us our agency–which Warren Jeffs used to do evil. We each have those choices and will be judged by what we do during this life, which will be even more important in eternity than what happens in earthly courtrooms, though we're fortunate to live in a country where courts can render decisions like the one just handed down in this case.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  16. The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

    This Jeffs character is doing his 'thang' by utilizing OLD Testament Practices which have become Null and Void by the NEW Testament, The Gospels of the Apostles For the Lord and King of All The Gods and Goddesses, Christ Jesus, The Redeemer of each and every soul be they lost in lusts or be they found in the Truth of His Word and Parables. One Man to One Woman is a Supremist Declaration and in so saying My therefore being 'as' a Supremist it is by the very 'natures' of The Gods that I do so Denounce Warren Jeffs and is Old Testament Religion for being what it is which is a Pagan man's Idolotrous meanderings of the Poligamist kind and has no needs being a part and/or parcel of this great nation, the United States Of America, the Land of Liberty and Justice for All! Send Jeffs to his reward in the jailcells where he may become a manthing for those that deem him as being but another hunk of meat!

    "Thus Saith I, The Lionly Lamb Of (ALL) The Gods and even Goddesses within each and every heavens of the Earth;s Heaven of HEAVEN's Lamentations, and May my Word in the aboveness of Word be My bond to be as a Declaration to ALL The People To Declare Polygamy to be a Dead Issue among the Masses! AMEN and Amen and amen!"

    August 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  17. Bill

    Please stop calling it a sect, and call it what it is.....a CULT, built on a bunch of pedophiles wishes to get under little girl's skirts, all under the protective umbrella of "freedom of religion". That CULT is a religion, like my granny would be a truck if you put tires under her!!

    August 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Debasis

      It is a cult with criminals and local police as accomplice.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  18. cyberCMDR

    No more sects! No more sects!

    Wait, that doesn't sound right....

    August 10, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Skwerl

      More Sects! More Sects! 😛 there that sounds better

      August 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  19. joann

    I,am so delighted,in what Jeffs got.I,hope and pray,Jeffs people would grt thier act;together now and go elsewhere to worship. Joann

    August 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  20. timd

    If Jeff's congregation were muslims, they would have raided that town, shot everybody, and torched it. Where is the O'Reilley outrage on this one? Is he afraid it will reflect poorly on Mitt the Mormon whose pretty much the only viable candidate the right has? Actually O'Reilly probably gets off on the exploitation, after all he was an alter boy. In the catholic church, how do you seperate the men from the boys? With a crobar!
    Mommy! Father Flaherty touched me! Now I'm ghey!

    August 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • CTYank

      If you want to see mormonism "ripped a spare one" read "Roughing It" by Sam Clemens. Brutally honest.

      And ... I have it on good authority that the "mainstream mormons" made a show of renouncing polygamy, but aren't really picky about enforcing it. Gotta wonder what financial scams they're working to support these "single-paycheck" families.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Debasis

      O'Reilly does not see anything bad among Christians. His problem is other religion!

      August 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Michael

      @CTYank: And...I have it on "good authority" that Santa actually comes in through the chimney.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
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About this blog

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.