Say it ain’t so, Warren Jeffs.
It turns out the exalted polygamist poobah and religious cult figure hasn’t always been so sure of his calling as a holy man and facilitator of forced marriage, rape and child molestation.
Just last January as he squatted in the Purgatory Correctional Facility near St. George, Utah, before his rape trial, Jeffs had an epiphany of conscience about his role as prophet and procurer for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In taped telephone conversations, Jeffs renounced his role as prophet and told family and friends he was a “wicked” man for the immoral acts he committed with a sister and a daughter. He repeated those and other admissions during a jailhouse visit with his brother, Nephi.
The 51-year-old Jeffs’ statements appeared in a court document unsealed on Tuesday. Although he retracted his admissions in February — he’s fickle as well as fundamental — the statements give the rest of us a glimpse of the caliber of twisted character the Utah justice system is at last dealing with. We’re learning that Jeffs, in addition to being an astute businessman capable of amassing a vast fortune under the guise of his prophet status, suffers from depression and other mental health issues.
Jeffs still has time for more epiphanies before his scheduled sentencing on Nov. 20 for two felony rape-as-an-accomplice convictions. Although he faces 5 years to life for the Utah convictions and has trials awaiting him in federal and state court in Arizona, a harsh sentence would be a first in recent history in the region, where “don’t ask, don’t tell” has a whole other meaning.
Although one Utah newspaper called Jeffs’ admissions a “bombshell,” they come as no surprise to Flora Jessop, a woman who managed to survive being born into an FLDS polygamist family in Colorado City. She survived a childhood molestation and ran away from home at 16 to escape a forced marriage. At 38, she has spent the past decade advocating for the rights of women and children inside polygamist clans.
Although the national media closely followed the Jeffs story of forcing teen girls to marry selected church members, she says it largely missed a greater truth: Incest, rape, and sodomy are common inside the cult, and no one does much about it.
Utah authorities charged with child health, welfare, and safety have done next to nothing, Jessop alleges. Over the years, she says, she’s provided sufficient evidence to warrant the removal of young people and spouses from polygamist households, only to have her efforts shelved.
Jessop says she’s even taken signed affidavits of victims to entities ranging from the Utah attorney general’s office to the Mormon Church. The result: inaction.
Could the climate be changing in the wake of the conviction of Jeffs?
It couldn’t come too soon, Jessop says.
She reels off incidents involving several teen girls, including a child named Ruby who was brutally raped following a forced marriage. The girl suffered a near-fatal hemorrhage. No one was ever arrested.
Then there are the so-called “Lost Boys” of Colorado City, who have been sent away from the polygamist community for a variety of reasons. Jessop has collected the names of 109 young men excommunicated from the sect who were sexual abuse victims and victimizers.
“The problem is, it’s not staying in Colorado City,” she says. “These boys didn’t get kicked out of Colorado City and say, ‘I think I’ll become a sex offender.’ They were victims of sexual abuse and have become offenders themselves. It’s reaching into and harming families out here now.”
Flora Jessop says it took her years to develop her own identity and “to transition out of this stuff and just get to the point where you can exist in the real world.”
For years, authorities wrote off the victims of the FLDS cult.
Jessop recalls, “I would tell people that this is where I’m from and this is going on, and people would say, ‘You’re a liar. This is America. This kind of thing doesn’t happen.'”
But it was happening, is happening, and the Jeffs case and admissions illustrate what’s been going on.
Flora Jessop says, “His conviction has validated every single victim who has come out of there for 20 years.”
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.JOHN L. SMITHMORE COLUMNSDiscuss this column in the eForums!