The prophet (left) and his defense team.
The prophet (left) and his defense team.
AP/Wide World

Persecution Complex

The recent conviction of Mormon polygamist leader Warren Steed Jeffs on two felony counts of rape as an accomplice is a huge public relations victory for Utah and Arizona authorities who have been under intense pressure to crack down on so-called "spiritual" marriages of underage girls.

But it is doubtful that the conviction of the leader of the nation's largest polygamist sect — considered by his followers to be God's prophet on Earth — will stop illegal marriages of children or stem polygamy.

That Jeffs is headed for prison will not even mean a new prophet will reign over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Insiders say Jeffs' second-in-command, Wendell Nielsen, is running day-to-day operations of the church but that Warren, reminiscent of top organized crime figures, will rule the FLDS from behind bars. That includes deciding who will marry whom in the religion.


Warren Jeffs

More than 50 years of government indifference toward widespread abuses within the FLDS has allowed the sect to grow from fewer than 400 people scratching out a living on the remote Arizona Strip in 1953 to an economic powerhouse with more than 10,000 members spread across the West.

The sheer size and wealth of the rapidly reproducing congregation, which accounts for only a quarter of the estimated number of polygamists in Arizona and Utah, have forced law enforcement to focus on the most notorious crimes while conceding that little will be done to stem a practice that violates the Arizona and Utah constitutions and has been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, Jeffs' high-profile arrest while on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List and subsequent conviction on felony charges — which could bring him life in prison — have focused the nation's attention on abuses that have flourished for decades within the closed FLDS society.

Authorities hope the conviction will give hope to those trapped inside polygamist groups, that it will encourage more victims of child and spousal abuse to step forward.

Brock Belnap, county attorney of Washington County, Utah, hailed the victim in the Jeffs case, 21-year-old Elissa Wall, as a courageous "pioneer" who challenged FLDS leaders and endured shunning by family and friends to bring Jeffs to justice.

"She stood and took the stand and withstood attacks on her credibility and reputation with honor and with dignity," Belnap said.

Wall was only 14 when she was forced to marry her 19-year-old first cousin in a fundamentalist ceremony performed by Warren Jeffs in April 2001. Wall left the FLDS in 2004 and filed a lawsuit in December 2005 against Jeffs and the church. Her suit spurred Washington County prosecutors to file criminal charges against Jeffs in April 2006. Jeffs was arrested in August 2006 during a traffic stop on Interstate 15 northeast of Las Vegas and has been held in jail at Washington County's Purgatory Correctional Facility. Jeffs is scheduled to be sentenced November 20 and could then be transferred to Arizona, where he faces criminal charges in Mohave County.

Wall testified that she felt "trapped" and had to go forth with the arranged marriage and submit to unwanted sexual relations with her cousin to stay in the good graces of religious leaders who she believed controlled her spiritual destiny.

"I hope that all FLDS girls and women will understand that no matter what anyone may say, you are created equal," Wall told a horde of reporters after the verdict. "You do not have to surrender your rights or your spiritual sovereignty."

Authorities argue that Jeffs' conviction will make it clear to fundamentalist leaders that they will be dealt with harshly if they use religious indoctrination to convince young girls that their only hope of salvation is to marry into polygamous families.

"Let this verdict be a warning to anyone else who believes that forcing young girls to marry older men is acceptable and without consequence," declared Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff moments after an eight-member jury returned the verdict on September 25.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard concurred, stating that the "verdict sends a message that forcing girls under the legal age of consent to 'marry' older men is not only unacceptable, it is illegal."

Beyond the swaggering press releases and away from the glare of staged news conferences on the plaza outside Utah's Fifth District Court, where Judge James L. Shumate presided over the weeklong show trial, a far greater battle was being fought and quietly won by polygamy advocates.

As Jeffs, 51, is facing five years to life in prison, the attorneys general in Utah and Arizona have announced they will not prosecute consenting adults for engaging in plural marriage.

"We are not going to go out there and persecute people for their beliefs," Goddard declared.

The states' capitulation to polygamy marks a monumental victory for fundamentalist Mormons who have steadfastly held to the practice as their central religious tenet since faithful men were first commanded to marry multiple wives in the 1830s by Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

At first glance, the concession may seem a practical approach for the states at a time when gay marriage and civil unions are increasingly becoming more accepted.

But the problems that occur within closed, polygamous societies go far beyond predatory sexual behavior, as New Times has revealed in articles about the culture dating back to 2003 (see "Polygamy in Arizona").

Left unchecked for half a century, the FLDS grew into a powerful theocracy that exerts immense control over all aspects of the social, political, economic, and cultural life of its followers. Nearly all its members have been born into the patriarchal polygamous sect in which the Bill of Rights has been jettisoned and replaced with a doctrine of strict obedience to religious leaders.

The cost to governments of trying to dismantle the FLDS theocracy has been extraordinary.

Arizona and Utah have spent millions of dollars in the past three years attempting to regain secular control of town councils, police departments, schools, and private property seized by the FLDS in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Arizona. The effort has had mixed success, with polygamists still firmly in control of the town councils and the police force that the two towns share.

It is naive to believe that fundamentalist Mormon polygamists will suddenly give up what they believe is God's command to enter into polygamous marriages with teenage girls just because Warren Jeffs has been convicted.

"They will just keep on doing the underage marriages, even though he's been convicted," says Benjamin Bistline, a former FLDS member and the author of a history of the fundamentalist Mormon polygamists.

Bistline, 72, predicts "there may be less underage marriage in Colorado City because so many of the people have left and gone to the other places, but they will still do them in other places."

Indeed, the FLDS operates compounds in places like rural Texas, western Canada, and Mexico, and experts believe that more and more residents of the Hildale-Colorado City community are moving to other areas to escape the crackdown by law enforcement.

So the problem of young girls being forced into sexual relationships with older men is not disappearing; it is relocating.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Reynolds case in 1878 "that plural marriages shall not be allowed." Regarding George Reynolds' argument that he should not be charged with bigamy in the Utah Territory after taking a second wife, the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting polygamy cannot be ignored simply because polygamy is a religious belief.

To do so "would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land and, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself," the court ruled. "Government could exist only in name under such circumstances."

In recent years, polygamy has become the focus of a raging legal debate in the United States, with scholars sharply divided over whether it should be legalized or whether laws prohibiting it should remain on the books. But the Reynolds decision remains in place.

The practical difficulties of enforcing prohibitions against polygamy, however, have pushed Arizona and Utah attorneys general to ignore Reynolds and the constitutions in their own states that also ban polygamy. Instead, Terry Goddard and Mark Shurtleff have opted to focus on laws they can more easily prosecute rather than attack the institution of polygamy.

"We determined six or seven years ago that there was no way we could prosecute 10,000 polygamists and put the kids into foster care," Shurtleff told the Reuters news agency last June. "There's no way that we have the money or the resources to do that."

Even if the states wanted to arrest thousands of polygamists, history has shown it is extremely difficult to get plural wives to testify against their husbands. Without victims, prosecutors say the cases would crumble.

Arizona and Utah have now retreated to a position of selective enforcement of the most dangerous crimes occurring within polygamous groups.

"Both states have decided to focus law enforcement efforts on crimes within the polygamous communities that involve child abuse, domestic violence, and fraud. Laws regarding these issues will be strictly enforced," the attorneys general said in joint statement.

The de facto decriminalization of polygamy will allow the FLDS to continue its rapid expansion, creating more fertile ground for an array of civil rights abuses, underage marriages being the most notorious. Equally disturbing is the practice by the FLDS of driving young boys deemed spiritually unworthy from their homes to reduce competition for child brides.

Once considered one of the twin "relics of barbarism," along with slavery, Mormon polygamy was targeted for eradication by the federal government beginning in the mid-1850s. By the late 19th century, Congress had passed laws that jailed polygamists, prevented them from holding public office, and threatened to destroy the finances of the Mormon Church.

The government backed down on its polygamy jihad only after Mormon Church leaders renounced polygamy in 1890. The repudiation of polygamy angered many Mormon faithful, some of whom splintered from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and continued to quietly practice what is known as The Principle.

Fundamentalist Mormons faced a century of legal attacks and recriminations from the mainstream church, which excommunicated members who engaged in polygamy. Police raided fundamentalist enclaves, jailing religious leaders, in 1932, 1944, and 1953. Despite the hardships, the fundamentalists have been steadfast in their belief that polygamy must be practiced for believers to reach the highest realms of a heaven known as the celestial kingdom. They have also insisted that the government has no right to stop the free exercise of sacred covenants including plural marriage — even if those involve minors.

Goddard and Shurtleff's joint decision to ignore constitutional prohibitions means that the police raids and mass arrests of men accused of simply engaging in plural marriage are things of the past. As long as underage girls are not coerced into cohabitation, the governments of Utah and Arizona will leave the polygamists alone.

Evidence and testimony presented during the trial show that law enforcement's concession on polygamy leaves Jeffs and succeeding FLDS leaders wide latitude to continue to exert despotic control over thousands of people born into the sect.

Elissa Wall and her cousin, Allen Steed, explained in testimony how FLDS leaders psychologically manipulate sect members. It was clear from what they told jurors that, no matter what happens to Warren Jeffs, the FLDS has no intention of moving away from polygamy.

Jeffs' conviction will only strengthen the resolve of FLDS members to resist secular authorities, says Isaac Wyler, a former FLDS member who was excommunicated in 2004.

"The first thing coming to their minds is, he's being persecuted," Wyler says. "And that just makes him all the more the prophet."

Utah's criminal case against Warren Jeffs was two-pronged: First, the state had to prove that Allen Steed repeatedly raped Elissa Wall. Second, it had to convince the jury that Jeffs was ultimately responsible because he forced Wall to marry Steed knowing that unwanted sexual relations would follow.

This task was made more difficult by the unusual circumstances surrounding the case. At the time of the trial, Steed had not been charged with rape. That is because, according to Wall's testimony, she viewed her cousin as both the perpetrator of a crime and a victim of FLDS religious indoctrination.

Prosecutors did not call Steed, 26, as a witness, relying instead on Wall's compelling testimony to build their case. Wall's description of the days leading up to her arranged marriage and her first sexual encounters with her cousin in the spring and summer of 2001 paints a chilling portrait of life inside the FLDS.

In early April 2001, Wall testified, she learned from her stepfather, late FLDS Bishop Fred Jessop, that three young women had been selected for marriage.

"It did not cross my mind that he was speaking about myself," she said, although marriage was "something every girl in that society wants someday."

A few days later, during another family meeting, Jessop put his arm around Wall and her mother and said church leaders had found a husband for 14-year-old Elissa.

"I was shocked. I was so young. There were many girls older than myself who were eligible for marriage," she testified. The name of her husband, Jessop told her, would be revealed to her later.

On April 21, 2001, Wall learned that her husband was to be her first cousin, Allen Steed, 19. That night, Wall testified, she told Jessop: "Father, I know who I'm going to marry. I just want you to know I'm not going to do it."

Wall said she then called Warren Jeffs and demanded a meeting with his father, then FLDS Prophet Rulon Jeffs. She testified that she asked Warren to tell Rulon that she did not want to marry Steed.

Warren Jeffs called back the next day saying he had arranged for Wall to immediately meet with Rulon. Wall testified that she went to the prophet's house in Hildale and kneeled next to Rulon and told him her objections. "I felt like I was too young to get married." She asked him to "please at least find someone other than my cousin."

Wall testified that the stroke- weakened, 90-year-old prophet told her to "follow your heart."

Wall testified that she was elated that Rulon Jeffs was listening to her objections. But later that day, she testified that Warren Jeffs crushed her hope of getting out of the marriage.

"Your heart is in the wrong place," she quoted Warren as telling her, indicating that she had to go forward with the marriage. Wall said she again told Warren that she "wasn't going to do it."

But, Wall testified, she also knew she had no choice but to marry Steed. "I felt trapped," she told jurors, fearing that to refuse the arranged marriage would result in being kicked out of her home and shunned by family. She also would be forfeiting her chance at marriage in the future, she believed, thus losing her only opportunity for eternal salvation. FLDS doctrine requires a woman to be married to reach the celestial kingdom.

Wall testified that Warren Jeffs, who was considered to have equal authority to his father at the time (Rulon Jeffs died in 2002), "completely overlooked that this was something I did not want to do or was willing to do."

Despite her objections, wedding preparations moved quickly forward, with her mother and sister spending most of the next two days preparing her dress. As the gown was being fitted, Wall testified, "I kept thinking I was getting ready for death."

On the morning of April 23, 2001, Wall told the jury, she was placed into a van with Steed and driven more than three hours to a remote hotel in Caliente, Nevada, where she and her cousin, along with two other couples, were to be married.

"I couldn't believe I was in this situation," she testified. "I felt like I had no control over anything."

Wall told jurors that Warren Jeffs performed the marriage ceremony, with Rulon Jeffs and Fred Jessop present.

"I really didn't comprehend what he was saying" during the ceremony, Wall said. "I sat there with my head hanging." She said she remained silent when Warren Jeffs asked her to confirm her vow.

She said, "Warren looked at me and repeated" the vow while directing Wall's mother to stand next to her. "My mother just squoze my hand hard, and I said, 'I do.'"

Warren, she testified, then directed the couple to kiss. "I gave him a peck on the lips and dropped his hand," she said. Warren then put their hands back together and said, "Go forth and replenish the Earth and raise good priesthood children."

At the time of her marriage, Wall had never dated a man, let alone kissed one. She said she knew nothing about sex and did not know how babies were conceived. But she knew that the command "go forth and replenish the Earth" meant she was to be the mother of Steed's children.

Immediately after the ceremony, Wall said, she fled across a courtyard and locked herself in a bathroom, where she cried. She said in court, "I could not believe I just got married."

Wall testified that no sexual activity occurred on the wedding night. "I was fully clothed under my nightgown," she said. Nor did any sexual relations occur on the four-day honeymoon to Phoenix, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Wall said she told Steed she "hated" him and did not want to be with him. But that did not stop Steed from attempting to initiate sex, Wall testified. Steed, Wall said, was "touching me on my private parts" and that she was "terrified and horrified."

Upon their return to Hildale a few days after the honeymoon, Wall told the jury, Steed exposed his genitals to her while they were sitting in a park one evening.

Wall said she ran away from Steed and retreated to her mother's room inside Fred Jessop's sprawling house — home to dozens of his wives and scores of children. Wall said she went back to Steed's room, which was next to her mother's room, early the next morning.

Upon returning to her husband's room, Wall said, Steed once again made sexual advances. Wall said Steed told her this was what he was supposed to do. "This is what married people do," she quoted him as saying. "Don't you want to have a baby?"

"Not with you," Wall said she told Steed.

Wall said she left the bedroom and returned to her mother's room, where she stayed for the next several nights. When she finally returned to Steed's bedroom, he again made unwanted sexual advances.

"It's time for you to be a wife," Wall said Steed told her. "Please don't do this," Wall said she told Steed as he undressed her.

"He just ignored me," she said.

Wall said she protested his actions, telling him, "I don't know what you're doing. I'm really uncomfortable with this, so please, stop."

But, Wall testified, Steed persisted.

"I was sobbing. And my whole entire body was just shaking because I was so, so scared. I didn't say anything. He just laid me on the bed and had sex."

After he was done, Wall said, Steed "rolled over and went to sleep." She said she was overwhelmed with feelings that she had done something evil.

"I didn't understand why he had done what he had just done," she told the jury. She testified that she locked herself in the bathroom and swallowed two bottles of over-the-counter painkillers, intending to commit suicide.

"The only thing I wanted to do was just to die," she testified. Instead, she threw up the medicine and was faced with being the wife of a man she despised.

Within days after her initial sexual experience, she and Steed went to an FLDS enclave in British Columbia. Wall said she told a sister living there that she "hated" Steed and "didn't want to be close to him."

The unhappy couple returned to Hildale in June 2001, and Wall arranged a private meeting with Warren Jeffs. She testified that she told Jeffs that Steed was "touching me and doing things to me that I was just not fully comfortable [with]."

She said she told Jeffs that she did not love Steed and did not see herself having a family with him. "I begged him to please give me a release" from the marriage, she testified.

Instead, Wall said, Jeffs admonished her, telling her that "I needed to repent. I was not living up to my vows. I was not being obedient."

She said Jeffs ordered her to "go home and give your self to Allen, who is your priesthood head, mind, body, and soul, and obey him without question."

Wall testified that she did not use sexually explicit language in her discussions with Jeffs because such terms are never used in the FLDS culture. After her meeting with Jeffs, Wall testified that she again told Steed, "I [don't] see a future for us."

But a few days later, Steed again had sex with her against her will, she testified.

Asked in court if she had a choice about having sex with Steed if he insisted, she said, "Absolutely not." She said the FLDS religion requires a woman to submit to her husband and religious leader:

"He was my priesthood head and husband."

Elissa Wall's riveting testimony left Warren Jeffs' defense team with little choice but to put Allen Steed on the stand. Jeffs' best hope for acquittal would rest in the credibility of a devout follower with a 10th-grade education.

After Steed was read his Miranda rights warning him that his sworn testimony could be used against him legally, he blurted out a statement that revealed his unwavering loyalty to the prophet.

"I don't believe Warren Jeffs has ever done anything wrong," the truck driver stated without a question being posed by Jeffs' lead defense attorney, Walter Budgen.

Steed testified that he knew Wall was "concerned" about the marriage but that he had no reservations. Budgen moved Steed quickly through the marriage ceremony with no attempt to refute Wall's testimony about her strong reluctance to be married.

Instead, Budgen focused on Steed's enthusiastic reaction to the marriage. "I was on cloud nine," Steed testified, although he admitted that he was not "particularly" in love with his child bride.

Steed acknowledged that the marriage was "rough and rocky" at the beginning and that his attempts to initiate sexual contact with Wall were rebuked. "I really didn't know how to make her like me," Steed testified. "I would write her letters and tell her I loved her."

In one such letter, Steed misspelled Elissa's first name, injecting a second "l."

Steed testified that Wall told him she wanted to wait five years to have children. In FLDS theology, the only reason for sexual relations is procreation.

Rather than backing off, Steed said he stepped up his sexual overtures by exposing himself to Wall one evening at the park.

"I tried to help her feel more familiar and move things along," Steed explained to the jury. Steed testified that Wall "was surprised" and that he "could tell" that he "had offended her." He said his young bride forgave him a few days later.

At this point in his testimony, Elissa Wall exited the courtroom leaving her notebook on the floor with the words "He Was Abusing Me" written in large letters.

Clearly worried about how the park exposure incident would affect the jury, Steed tried to put distance between the incident and the first time the couple had sexual intercourse. Steed testified that a "month or so" after he had exposed himself, Wall initiated sexual relations with him one evening after he had returned from a long day at work.

"She rolled up next to me and asked me to scratch her back," Steed testified. "One thing led to the next," he said, and the couple had consensual sex. "I felt like she was ready to go forward," Steed testified.

With sharply conflicting versions of the first sexual encounter, the credibility of Steed and Wall would be crucial in the jury's deliberations.

Wall weathered a blistering cross-examination by defense attorney Tara Isaacson that attempted to portray her as a strong-willed opportunist hoping a criminal conviction against Jeffs would bolster her chances of collecting a large financial settlement in her pending lawsuit.

Steed, however, crumbled under incisive questioning from Utah Assistant Attorney General Craig L. Barlow.

"Allen contradicted himself several times on the stand," jury foreman David Finch said after the verdict.

Barlow forced Steed to recant the date of the first sexual encounter, moving it back to within days of his exposing himself to Wall in the park, instead of the "month or so" he had originally said under oath.

Barlow, chief of the Utah AG's children's justice division, also stripped away the veneer of FLDS righteousness surrounding sexual relationships.

Steed testified that after Wall initially told him she wanted to wait five years to have a baby, she reconsidered and told Steed she might be ready in as soon as a few months.

Barlow seized on the opening and suggested to Steed that rather than waiting five years to initiate sex to conceive a baby, Steed had chosen to have sex with his 14-year-old cousin at the earliest possible date.

"Wouldn't you?" Steed quickly replied.

Steed's cocky answer strongly suggested that his motivation for sex had little to do with FLDS spirituality and far more to do with raging teenage testosterone.

Barlow drove home the unspoken subtext with a curt rejoinder dripping with unmistakable disdain.

"I'm not you, Mr. Steed."

Barlow then exposed the lengths to which FLDS loyalists, like Steed, would go to keep their leader, Warren Jeffs, from going to prison.

Barlow played a tape recording of Warren Jeffs telling the story of how a former prophet had lied to authorities to get out of prison. The prophet had said he would renounce polygamy, but, once out of jail, he continued the practice.

Jeffs preached that such deceit is acceptable if it is done to free oneself from enemies and continue to obey the "heavenly father."

Barlow then asked Steed if he would disobey the laws of man if the prophet requested him to do so.

"I would," Steed replied.

Warren Jeffs rose slowly and looked straight ahead as the court clerk read the verdict.

Count one: "guilty." Count two: "guilty."

Jeffs did not move. His expression never betrayed whatever thoughts passed through his mind.

His supporters, who occupied the back row of Judge Shumate's courtroom, remained silent.

Across the courtroom, Elissa Wall wept quietly.

Allen Steed was not present. But he will be back in court soon. Steed's shaky testimony led prosecutors to charge him the next day with one count of rape.

There was no visible reaction to the verdict in Colorado City. Children rode their bikes and played on trampolines while women went shopping at the local market and picked wild peas.

The few stores in town were open.

Life in the nation's largest polygamist community, at least for the time being, went on as if nothing had happened.

And, perhaps, nothing really has.

The FLDS has long expected to come under criminal fire for conducting underage marriages. The faithful, according to exhibits presented in the trial, see the conviction of Warren Jeffs as nothing more than another test of religious beliefs that have been under attack by civil authorities for more than 150 years.

Jeffs began moving many FLDS members out of Hildale and Colorado City several years ago to more secure compounds in South Dakota, Texas, Colorado, Canada, Mexico, and other unknown locations.

Former FLDS members believe a massive temple under construction on a sprawling ranch near El Dorado, Texas, is the new FLDS headquarters.

Benjamin Bistline, the FLDS historian who still lives near Colorado City, says these remote areas outside Arizona and Utah are the most likely places for underage marriages to occur in the future.

"They have total control at the compounds," Bistline says. "People can't get out, and no one can get in."

There's no doubt in Bistline's mind that the FLDS will not only continue polygamy but will continue the practice of adult males marrying young girls.

Like in the Hercules parable, the government may have cut off the head of the Hydra by convicting Jeffs — authorities certainly maintain publicly that they have — but more heads will grow back.

The only way to stop polygamous practices, Bistline says, "is to arrest [FLDS adherents] and put them all in jail."

He is saying that attacking the abuses of polygamy on a piecemeal basis will be relatively easy for the FLDS absorb. The FLDS views the battle over polygamy in celestial terms and appears willing and capable of withstanding the occasional legal attack by law enforcement.

Experts believe there is no way that FLDS faithful will abandon the practice of the prophet selecting which girls and women will marry which men, and when. The faithful believe it is his divine right to place even underage girls in such marriages, despite what civilian law dictates.

"We cannot shirk, leave it, or turn it aside for even a moment — without [an] element [of] cowardliness growing in our souls," Sam Barlow, son of the late prophet John Y. Barlow, told FLDS priesthood members in a 2002 sermon as it became clear that Utah and Arizona were conducting criminal investigations into underage marriages.

Sam Barlow urged fellow priesthood members to be prepared for criminal charges.

"Brethren, if you are the person that gets targeted, let's get close to the Lord, let's be united, stand together, and you be the one that takes a hit without flinching."

In court the other day, Warren Steed Jeffs did not flinch. Persecution Complex


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