Sep 23, 2015

New documentary Prophet's Prey reveals how fundamentalist Mormon church survives despite its cult status

September 23, 2015

A screen grab from Prophet’s Prey show five women dressed in pioneer dresses.Source:YouTube
IN the hills between Utah and Colorado City, a man named Warren Jeffs was going about his business quietly. He wasn’t disturbing anybody, he didn’t appear to outsiders to be doing anything wrong.

A closer look revealed the opposite. For years, Jeffs, a fundamentalist Mormon, was accruing wives — some as young as 12 years old — and forming a cult like no other.

Inside the walls of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), Jeffs was preaching love and patience and the word of God. But his intentions were not pure.

Sam Brower, a private investigator who got close enough to Jeffs to write a book about what he witnessed, said the 59-year-old was “committing the most vile crimes imaginable”.

“Kidnapping, tax fraud, child molestation, human trafficking, blackmail,” Brower said.

Jeffs would eventually answer for his crimes, despite trying t run. He was briefly a fugitive and briefly owned second position on the FBI’s most wanted list. When he was tracked down he had with him 16 mobile phones, three wigs and one of his wives.

Brower’s evidence led to Jeffs’ conviction and a 20-year sentence for child sexual assault. He was additionally charged with incest and sexual conduct with minors.

Four years after he was put behind bars, a new documentary reveals the church continues to operate without him. Outside his jail cell there are 10,000 loyal followers waiting for his release, convinced he is their saviour.


Brower told an audience in 2013 that he believed Jeffs was the leader of more than a church.

“Most people think of them as a church, but I think of them as an organised crime syndicate,” he said.

In his book, Prophet’s Prey — the same title used in the new documentary by director Amy Berg — Brower recounts how, over seven years, he witnessed horrendous crimes under the veil of religion.

In an interview in 2011 he explained how he first gained the church’s trust.

“The community itself is very distrustful, very isolated, very insular,” he said. “It literally took years, baby steps, little bits at a time, getting to know somebody and then them having a brother or some other contact that would slowly begin talking to me. It was a very cumbersome process.”

He said the FLDS community were “more insidious” than the mafia with one subtle but important difference.

“The mafia threatens you with your life, but the FLDS threatens you with your family and your eternal salvation, and people that lose their family are without hope, and that’s worse than death.”

Brower said he knew he was likely to come across polygamy — traditionally one man with multiple wives — but he didn’t expect it to involve pre-teens.

“I’d heard of polygamy and what was happening to these young girls, but I had no idea how young they really were. His one victim in Texas was barely 12 years old.”

A review of Brower’s book by Variety concluded “spiritual and psychological bondage does not end simply by putting a monster behind bars”.

That’s the premise of Berg’s documentary, one that revisits the cult years after Jeffs’ conviction and finds little if anything has changed.


Author John Krakauer features heavily in the documentary. Having previously written about fundamentalist Mormonism, he explains how the FLDS came to hold such strong beliefs about women and enabled people like Jeffs to demand multiple brides.

In an interview ahead of the Sundance Film Festival where the documentary was premiering, Krakauer said polygamy was “everywhere” in Utah in the 1800s but the government soon tried to ban it.

“The fundamentalists, the true believers, said ‘bullsh*t, what the f***’,” he said. “This is (the religion’s) most holy principle and so they broke away from the mainstream church.”

He said Brigham Young, one of the church’s leaders, had “70 or 80 wives” and that wives equalled power.

“Literally, in this religion, women are like animals, they’re treated so badly,” Krakauer said.

Polygamy is not the only crime being committed by the church. Prophet’s Preyportrays a culture of child labour, rape and misogyny.

Berg said “manipulation and brainwashing starts at a very young age” in America’s largest polygamous community.

Krakauer said even Jeffs was brainwashed as a child. He said he was born three months premature and believed he was “special” as a result.


“He grew up with this sense of entitlement and he was a really kinky, f***ed up kid,” Krakauer said.

That kid grew into an adult who channelled his sense of entitlement into molesting children. He’s behind bars but the cult marches on.

The Daily Mail reported this year that through letters and phone calls Jeffs is still running the show but the community on the Arizona-Utah border is divided between loyalists and defectors.

Willie Jessop, who left the cult in 2011, said many refuse to believe their leader did anything wrong.

“That’s why you see such a fractured situation,” Jessop told the Mail.

“People try to come to grips with what he’s in prison for (and) it’s easier for people to put it under religious persecution than the reality of why he’s there.”

Salon recently compared it to ISIS, and the similarities are hard to argue with.

“Both groups have sought to pursue prophetic religious teachings to their ultimate extreme, and both have constructed a throwback social order based on male domination, female subjugation, forced marriage and the rape and sexual enslavement of children. If Warren Jeffs had the guns, the territory and the freedom that ISIS possesses, how far would he go?”

Thank God he doesn’t.

Prophet’s Prey opens in the US on September 25.

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