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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. Faith

    People become cults because their Bible reading is a fake. Authentic knowledge is essential in every field. Americans read to entertain themselves and not to obtain the truth, unlike before. Westerners weren't like that. Easy life made them stupid. Secular West's darkness continues.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:31 am |
  2. Chris

    Ok...it's up to me to remind everyone: Power corrupts...absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    August 10, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  3. dean warren

    satan is so around with his lies and all that mess. jesus said we must be born again not be a fundamentalist or mormon or anything like that warren jeffs needs jesus the mormons need jesus i call on all my born again brothers and sisters to pray with me for all of this especially for those precious young girls.

    August 10, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  4. friskenmann

    I think that the husbands of Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin should equally share in running Warren Jeff's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints cult.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  5. logikflux

    Warren Jeffs can tell you,... Sects sells.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  6. OhYeahBrother

    Maybe Roman Polanski?

    August 10, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  7. *frank*

    In White Trash Mormon North Korea, Lizardface Prophet sodomize YOU!

    August 10, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Lost

      What?

      August 11, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  8. Vile troll

    I'll lead the sect! I hear you get to sample lots of sweet, young cooch.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Evil Troll

      Awesome! I like 'em young, personally. I wonder if they have any 8 year olds up for grabs?

      August 10, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  9. bookgirl

    Every adult in this sect should be locked up. They know what they are part of and do nothing. Who will take over? Another pervert...rest assured these people are full of them.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  10. The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

    @ ReplaceWhy did write on Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm, stating, "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?

    You are writing true words of wisdom RW and I do so sympethize with your greiving and psychological wrestlings with Christendom's Theologies that are nowadays like seeds being scattered by the winds that change every so often and with each seed of Christendom sprouting forth, some upon the rocks where they cannot grow and some upon the sands that has no nourishment for them to grow rightly and some seeds of Christendom are spread within good fields of sound nourishments needed where they grow and become strong, straight and true in the preaching with their fellow tares that do accompany them in their fields of sound nourishments.

    I, RW, have been keeping to myself mostly and no longer attend the local church that I once did try to attend regularly but became dis-satisfied with its' certain members that seemed to me to be of unrighteousness mindset. I still do though go to this church on days when they haul in 2 truckloads of food to be dispersed to those of need in the community. I keep my 'Dish' Tv attuned to some of but a handful of religious stations and listen to their words and songs as I type away here on Belief Blog and otherly 'net' ongoings. I do though watch CNN News a good deal.One might call me as being a Deist, one who believes in many Gods and Goddesses of GOD and they are GOD's sons and Daughters which has created all of Life Creations for GOD's Pleasantries and Disdainments Sakes. I do both Love and Fear GOD who I view as HIS Body being all the universes of such infinitesimal measures of abundancies We will never truly know GOD but shall always know of HIM and our living upon but one single universe of such an abundant measure of infinite universes is mind altering bto say the least! As for where GOD's Sons and Daughters do live, I am now held to be reserved in commenting due the amount of information being at a limited session. Maybe RW, as you might read some of my future posts, and may gain a sense of understanding my Word. "May your Time here upon this Planet we call our Celestial Home give you the pleasantries and solace all people so richly deserve!"

    August 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  11. Chuck D

    What say you Mitt Romney???

    August 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Deeds

      Mitt Romney is not an FLDS member.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Zee

      No, he isn't. He is part of the 'mainstream' LDS church that would have come to this if they didn't have so many political ambitions. Jeff Warrens sect looks a lot like the original LDS incarnation. The so called 'mainstream' LDS church in Utah also ignored any reports about this, and allowed this to happen time and time again when they could have put a stop to it. While Short Creek was isolated, members of the community did go into St. George quite frequently, and no one ever did anything about it. All LDS needs to answer for this in someway.

      August 24, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  12. *frank*

    @Rob
    "I wonder what is wrong with the post I'm trying to write?"
    It would be good if more people here asked themselves that...

    August 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  13. sanjosemike

    POWER, POWER POWER.

    It's always about this. Religion is irrelevant. What is relevant to those cult leaders is power. It's always been that way and will remain so.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  14. lliam

    Perhaps the true LDS church would welcome them, and assist them in their hour of need?

    August 10, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Ron T421

      I lived in Utah for 4 years when I was stationed there. I believe that the LDS would rather join with the Catholic Church than the FLDS. They actively try to convict many of the FLDS sect of polygamy. They are a major source of embarrassment and misconceptions for the mainstream LDS. There is a lot of ill will between the two.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  15. johnny57

    Let us hope that this perverted sect will dissolve and that will be the end of them. I was hoping this would be the end of them.

    August 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  16. dave

    Why do people laugh at mit romney and mormons because they thing the book of mormon is real and has the same authority as the bible. How is it that both atheists and christians join hands in and mock mormons. GO RICK PERRY OR ANY OTHER republican besides huntman–2012 election will be "and the mormons really thought they had a chance"

    August 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • B Reed

      I do not laugh at Mitt Romney. Rather, I shudder to imagine a right-wing evangelical in the White House. Mormons are very scary people to me.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Stephanie

      It is sad that you are fearful of mormons. You are missing some of the nicest people I have ever met and are willing to give you the shirts of their backs. And lumping everyone into one group because of their beliefs is no better then being racial.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Frogist

      @dave: So since you are biased against mormons, you would instead choose Perry, a guy who enjoys the company of hate groups? Now there's a discerning voter!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  17. B North

    The mormon church disavows but doesnt do anything substantial to put these wierdos out of business. Why dont the members of this cult sue the trust? The legacy will just continue.The church has got to stop ignoring what is going on down there and start to prosecute these molesters and put them out of business for good!!!!

    August 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • d. anthony

      How exactly would a church go about prosecuting any group or individual? They are a church, not the government or law enforcement. All they can do is disavow.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  18. John

    I'll do it! I'll implement severe reforms, too. I won't allow any man other than myself to have more than 5 wives. Also, other men will be able to marry those women 18 or older. I'll stick to 15-17 year olds, and I promise I won't touch the boys. These reforms are drastic, but I feel it's the only right thing to do.

    August 10, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  19. Rob

    I wonder what is wrong with the post I'm trying to write?

    August 10, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • John

      @Rob, I think it doesn't say anything but "I wonder what is wrong with the post I'm trying to write?"

      August 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • trixen

      @LinCA Your list reminds me of the famous Carlin routine...

      August 10, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • LinCA

      I guess people didn't approve of my public service announcement. Oh, well.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  20. 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.

    "Thus saith I, The Lionly Lamb of (ALL) The Gods and Goddesses and In The Abovenesses of My Word Do I Write such with Truth and Clarity of Sound Reasoning And Judgement afforded Me by The Holy Spirit that does dwell within all things of Life!"

    August 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Lionly lamb...what is the purpose of that rant...ask god where is is he needs to get food to Africans....

      August 10, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

      poor poor evolvedDNA, you did miss a few posts, better go and check what i wrote prior to your posting, Get your factfinding cap on and do some research evolvedDNA

      August 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • Dolt

      Lionly Lamb, you are just another Warren Jeffs in the making. Unfortunately, religious droll such as yours still appeals to some people who want to be told what to do by manipulative and deceitful charlatans like yourself.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • lesbianspaghetti

      Once one gets past the pompous overuse of language, primarily used during the Elizabethan era.. It's frightening to think this may be your manifesto.

      August 10, 2011 at 11:23 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.