Nov 13, 2014

I Escaped a Cult

Patrick J. Kiger
Inside NGC on
April 10, 2012

Survivors of a polygamist breakaway Mormon sect and a fundamentalist Christian community discuss their experiences under the control of cult leaders.

Brent Jeffs, one of the subjects of I Escaped a Cult, was born in 1983 behind the walls of a concrete compound in Salt Lake Valley that was an outpost of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The group, also known as FLDS, is a breakaway Mormon sect which still clings to the practice of polygamy, a practice that the mainstream Mormon church abandoned back in 1890.

Brent has an elite bloodline by FLDS standards. His grandfather Rulon and his uncle Warren both rose to leadership in the sect, and were regarded as prophets whose word was not to be disobeyed.

Lost Boy
Buy now
But as Brent describes in his 2009 memoir, Lost Boy: The True Story of One Man’s Exile from a Polygamist Cult and his Brave Journey to Reclaim his Life, his lineage didn’t protect him from becoming a victim of what he and others describe as the cult’s cruel sexual exploitation of children. Starting at age 5, he says that he was sexually abused by his uncle Warren. Memories of his ordeal continued to torment him into adulthood. In the book, he describes awakening, screaming, from nightmares in which Warren plucked him from a kindergarten classroom and led him down the hallway to a bathroom where the rapes took place. “All I remember feeling was overwhelming panic, pain, and helplessness,” he writes. “Something terrible was going to happen to me, something horrendous and unstoppable.”

But Brent, sadly, wasn’t the only young victim of a twisted subculture in which a few leaders had supreme power to take whatever they wanted. Adolescent girls were compelled to become the brides of older men and begin breeding as soon as they were able to produce more members of the flock. But because the most powerful men had multiple wives, that led to shortage of females. To reduce the competition, adolescent boys continually were excommunicated and cast out of the community to fend for themselves.

According to testimony by Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard at a 2008 U.S. Senate hearing, FLDS began in the early 1900s, when its founders left the mainstream Mormon faith and set up a polygamist community in the tiny town of Short Creek, AZ, along the Arizona Utah border. Over the decades that followed, Arizona police repeatedly tried to drive out the polygamists, including a July 1953 predawn raid in which police and National Guard troops took 263 residents into custody. But oddly, public sympathy in Arizona shifted to the polygamists, who were seen as being unfairly persecuted, and Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, who had orchestrated the raid, was voted out of office in 1954. Thus chastened, government and law enforcement agencies largely left FLDS alone for years.

With little outside scrutiny, the leaders of FLDS became increasingly powerful and autocratic as their sect gradually grew. By the early 2000s, FLDS had an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 members in the Arizona-Utah border area, and largely controlled the communities of Colorado City and Hilldale. FLDS influence extended into local law enforcement agencies, in which some of the officers themselves were polygamists, according to Senate testimony. In some cases, police officials allegedly assisted the cult by forcibly removing the adolescent boys that cult leaders wanted to exile.

To support itself, FLDS operated an underground economic empire built upon child labor, according to Stephen Singular, an investigative journalist who has probed the cult. Singular testified in the 2008 U.S. Senate hearings that FLDS disregarded child labor laws and put young boys to work in its church-controlled construction company, where their unpaid labor enabled the sect to underbid the competition and snare lucrative government and private contracts.

But in the 2000s, law enforcement officials in several states again decided to crack down on FLDS. According to the New York Times, in 2007, Warren Jeffs, who by then was leader of FLDS, was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl whose marriage he presided over. He received two consecutive five-year jail terms. But the Utah Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction, ruling that a judge had erred in his jury instructions. Prosecutors in Texas, where Warren Jeffs had set up an outpost called the Yearning for Zion Ranch, had better luck. In August 2011, the FLDS leader was found guilty of the sexual assault of two underage females. At the trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show that he had fathered a child with a 15-year-old victim, and also played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In this 2011 Time magazine interview, Brent recounted how he finally got some comfort from the trial, in which he was a witness. Brent’s testimony about his own abuse was so powerful that three of the jurors reportedly broke into tears. He also got a chance, at last, to confront his tormentor. “I actually got to walk right up to him and say, ‘You finally got what you deserved,'” Brent said. “He just looked at me and looked down at the ground and they hauled him off…I thought, Man, you know what, you had your time. Now it’s time for you to have justice served and you’re going to see what it feels like to suffer.”

But even behind bars, Warren Jeffs reportedly continues to hold sway over his FLDS followers. According to this February 2012 Time article, he recently issued orders to cult members to take away their children’s bicycles and to build a “massive, amphitheater-like structure at the Texas ranch, apparently in preparation for doomsday.