“Short Creek is the most lawless town in the country,” says Sam Brower, author of the new book “Prophet’s Prey” (Bloomsbury), which chronicles his seven-year investigation into the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, a radical religious group that practices polygamy and rejects the presence of outsiders. Indeed, any stranger who drives into Short Creek—which straddles the Arizona and Utah border and embodies parts of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah—can expect to be harassed, either by the church-run police or members of the “God Squad,” the FLDS members who are assigned to follow uninvited guests.
FLDS may be especially touchy these days, as their infamous leader—self-proclaimed prophet Warren Steed Jeffs, who has upwards of 80 wives (two dozen under the age of 16)—recently began serving a Texas sentence of life plus twenty years for sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child. Jeffs seems to blame the community for his imprisonment, as he’s ordered his followers to do penance for their lack of righteousness by praying, fasting and refraining from all marital relations. (Meanwhile, a dozen of his underlings have also received lengthy prison sentences or face serious charges.) But if Brower has his way, those arrests will be the first of many more. The veteran investigator maintains that sexual abuse of minors has long been rampant at FLDS compounds, which are also found in Texas, Nevada and South Dakota, as well as elsewhere in the United States and Canada.
Why don’t we begin by talking about Warren Jeffs.
He’s a complex person. He’s a narcissistic sociopath and probably has a whole boatload of mental illnesses. He’s incapable of feeling anyone else’s pain. And he’s had a deviant [voyeuristic] streak ever since he was little.
How has Jeffs been able to keep a hold on his followers? He doesn’t sound like a charismatic man.
He’s not charismatic at all. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of his sermons and not only are they monotone, it’s the same hellfire and damnation [theme] over and over again. But he’s been able to convince the people of Short Creek that when things go wrong it’s their fault, and that if they had done more to please God, things wouldn’t be so bad. It’s amazing how he understands their mindset well enough to get them to do exactly what he tells them.
How many followers does Jeffs have?
The common perception is ten-thousand. But there are so many children now that I think it’s closer to fifteen-thousand.
Is there a typical follower?
For the most part, they all look, talk and dress the same. The women have to be covered from their neck to their ankles and to their wrists. So they wear these long, pastel-colored prairie dresses. They don’t cut their hair, so they put it up in what outsiders call a “plyg-do.” The men are a little bit less obvious than the women, but they are buttoned up to their necks and down to their ankles and wear long-sleeved shirts. If you’ve been here [in Utah] for a while you can spot them.
What kind of work do FLDS members do?
Most of their work is in construction, and they do a lot of public works projects that bring millions of dollars into Short Creek. There are also big farming operations and big manufacturing companies that are FLDS-operated. They do government contracts for the aerospace industry and have worked on the latest top secret night vision projects. They are very good at obtaining government loans and grants and know how to bid government jobs.
If an outsider enters Short Creek, how do the people there react?
Drive into Short Creek and you’ll have men in four-wheel-drive pickup trucks with tinted windows trying to run you off the road. I was there a few weeks ago and within ten minutes I had two of these “plyg-rigs” on my tail. Then at one point I drove by a boy of about ten or twelve years old. I have no idea how he knew I was different from anyone else in town. He looked at me and my vehicle and flipped me off as I went past.
Basically, they will follow our laws when it suits them, but when the laws of man come in conflict with the laws of God, it is always going to be the laws of God. They feel that they are above the laws of man, and lying to the outside world is okay, because they are God’s chosen ones and don’t have to live by the same standards the rest of us do.
What happens to a family when a man is thrown out of the church?
His wives and children are reassigned to other men in the community. One day a man has wives and children and the next day he is out of there. Most of the time when a man is found in disfavor [a decision made unilaterally by Warren Jeffs], he has no idea why. The wives and children can all be given to one man, or they can be distributed to different men in the community. So one day they might be going by the name of Jessup, and literally the next day they are going by the name of Barlow. The children are calling someone new “father,” and aren’t allowed to see their biological father. They can’t have any contact with him at all. Sometimes the women and children are transferred to one man, and then a year or two later that man is found in disfavor, and they are transferred to yet another man.
Why has it been such a challenge to prosecute and convict FLDS leaders and followers?
One of the biggest reasons is that it’s just easier not too. Also, they are off in a corner and stay out of sight and out of mind. And the FLDS is such a well-funded, well organized syndicate, that they are bigger than little Mohave County, Arizona or Washington County, Utah, can handle. It’s going to take the resources of the federal government because the FLDS has millions of dollars and they are in it for life.
Is there another way to bring down the group other than prosecuting them for crimes like rape and child abuse?
Yes, there are lots of ancillary crimes that are being committed—like financial crimes. They appear to be an organization that is set up to evade paying taxes. A lot of people just think of the polygamy and say, “What’s the big deal?” But there are a lot of other crimes that are initiated to cover up and perpetuate the child abuse.
What is Fumarase Deficiency and why is it so prevalent in Short Creek?
Fumarase Disease is a genetic disease that interferes with the Krebs cycle, a metabolic function that enables the body to process food at the cellular level. Development is stunted, physical deformities are frequent, organs do not function properly, and there can be powerful seizures. Over half of the world’s instances of Fumarase Deficiency are found in Short Creek, a reflection of decades of inbreeding.
What does the future hold for the church?
My fear is that this is a cultural thing with the FLDS and they struggle when someone is not telling them what to do. And my fear is that someone just as savvy as Warren Jeffs is going to continue the same practices. My hope is that the federal government will step in. I hope there is enough public outrage that the town is cleaned up and returned to some type of normalcy.
What does the future hold for Jeffs?
He is now a shell of a human being and looking for a way to become a martyr. At the same time, he can’t let go of running everybody’s life back in Short Creek. While he was awaiting trial he had access to a phone and was spending tens of thousands of dollars a month on phone calls to his lieutenants and literally micro-managing everyone’s life. Now that he’s in prison he doesn’t have as much control. But there are still people who are assigned to be there every second he has visiting time, which is every weekend. And he still gives instructions and uses every privilege he can to his advantage.
By the same token, I think the reality is starting to set in that he’s going to be in prison for the rest of his life. He can’t just come right out and kill himself, because that is such a taboo thing in his culture. But he has already tried to starve himself to death and go out as a martyr.