In January 2006, more than 3,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church, gathered inside their huge white meetinghouse in Colorado City, Arizona, for a regular Saturday work project service. Outside, unknown to the congregants, a handful of FBI agents were quietly approaching. They wanted to question 31 people about the whereabouts of Warren Jeffs, the church’s former “president and prophet,” who was on the run for performing a wedding involving an underage girl.
Within five minutes, just as a FLDS member named Jim Allred began the first prayer, FBI agents entered the building.
But the church’s private security force was ready, carefully trained by local law enforcement to obstruct the FBI without violence. They repeatedly stepped in front of the agents to block their entry into the assembly hall where one of the wanted men, Lyle Jeffs (Warren’s brother), sat near the front.
The strategy worked. By the time FBI agents had forced their way in, Jeffs had managed to flee to the church basement, where escape ATVs were waiting for him. Jeffs and an assistant donned hooded masks, started the ATVs, roared up a ramp out a side exit and disappeared. Lyle Jeffs slipped out the back door.
The FBI lingered for 45 minutes, trying to get the local police to help them locate others who had been subpoenaed. Instead, the police tipped off the fugitives on the whereabouts of their pursuers. All but four of the 31 people eluded the FBI, hiding to avoid testifying against their leader.
Dowayne Barlow, a large man with close-cropped brown hair, played an instrumental role in the escape, supplying the camouflage hoods worn by Jeffs and his accomplice. But this January, Barlow, who served as Lyle Jeffs’ aide for years, testified inside a Phoenix courtroom, telling how his rural community had fallen under the spell of a power-hungry criminal.
The adjoining towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah — known collectively as Short Creek — have a population of 10,000, the majority of whom belong to the FLDS Church. For decades, the FLDS operated here with impunity, but in recent years, the Justice Department began cracking down, investigating allegations that municipal officials harass non-FLDS residents, deny them utility hookups, and spy on them. In January, the latest federal discrimination lawsuit against the two towns began, shedding light on how the town officials acted as Warren Jeffs’ pawns. The trial ended in March, and the jury sided with the Justice Department. But whether the case weakens Jeffs’ grip on this desert outpost remains unclear.
Birth of an FDLS townShort Creek’s roots go back to 1890, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bowed to outside pressure and renounced polygamy. The decision enabled Utah to become a state, but it also alienated Mormons who regarded polygamy as an integral part of their religion. So they broke away from the main church, fanning out across the West and into Mexico. In the 1920s, one group retreated to a strip of high desert bracketed by jagged red cliffs. Here, they established Short Creek.
FLDS followers adhere to many of the same teachings as the LDS church, along with a number of older Mormon doctrines that the mainstream church renounced or modified in the late 19th century, including plural marriage. Though federal and state law prohibits polygamy, the Short Creek fundamentalists have, for the most part, been left undisturbed by outside law enforcement. Both Hildale and Colorado City have their own governments, but they have always been highly influenced by the fundamentalist church.
For most of Barlow’s 47 years, this system served him well. He had a highly structured but happy childhood in a prominent FLDS household, made up of his father, his father’s two wives, and their 25 children. The entire family shared a single bathroom and abided by their father’s strict moral code, which emphasized community service and humility. Barlow’s mother was musical and often gave impromptu piano concerts in their living room. His father, a superintendent of the local school district, encouraged his kids to participate in community activities. Barlow remembers the church dances, the Fourth of July celebrations, the ice cream socials and the annual watermelon festival.
Barlow acknowledges that non-FLDS residents were discriminated against in small ways, but he maintains that the church generally selected “good public servants.”
All that changed when Warren Jeffs, son of Rulon Jeffs, the previous FLDS prophet, came to power in the late ’90s. Since then, the remote fringe community has been repeatedly thrust into the spotlight. Unlike his father, Warren disapproved of any kind of friendly relationships with nonbelievers. He was obsessed with the idea of “perfect obedience” and convinced that contact with outsiders would taint his followers. FLDS-owned businesses closed as Jeffs sought to further isolate his people economically, socially and psychologically. Meanwhile, to consolidate his power, Jeffs began rewriting doctrines to support the one-man rule initiated by his father. (Before Rulon Jeffs took charge, the church was run by a seven-man governing body called the Council of Friends). Soon, Jeffs controlled nearly every aspect of his followers’ lives.
He banned the color red. Then he banned the internet, toys, bicycles, holidays and all books that he had not written himself. He ordered adolescent girls to wed men as old as their grandfathers and began dissolving entire families. He appointed his most loyal followers to the key town positions, including mayor, city manager and police chief. No decisions could be made without a pass from church authorities.
Barlow remembers the day in January 2004, when Warren cemented his power over the people of Short Creek — socially, politically and religiously. More than 2,000 FLDS members watched as Jeffs publicly expelled 21 of the community’s highest-ranking men, denouncing them as “master deceivers.” Jeffs then “reassigned” the men’s wives to other men or took them, along with the men’s underage daughters, for himself. Anyone who questioned Jeffs’ leadership faced a similar fate.
“Everyone was scared of losing their families,” says Terrill Musser, who left the church when he was 18 and recently returned to Short Creek with his family. Nearly all FLDS members transferred ownership of their property to the church’s trust, the United Effort Plan (created in 1942 as a continuation of a trust established by Short Creek’s first FLDS settlers), as well as paying it a percentage of their incomes. By the time Jeffs took over, the FLDS owned nearly all the land in Short Creek, which meant he could evict anyone.
By banning the internet and taking charge of all media in Short Creek, Jeffs controlled his followers’ perception of him and of the outside world. He sought to cut people off from that world, and to make them increasingly afraid of it.
Finally, in 2004, some of the people Jeffs had expelled from the community began to sue the church. In response, the state of Utah stripped Jeffs of control over the United Effort Plan, restructuring it to benefit anyone who had contributed to the community, regardless of faith. Apostates began returning to Short Creek.
Jeffs instructed his followers to shun the new arrivals. His private security force prowled the streets in SUVs with blacked-out windows, enforcing church discipline and harassing apostates. The towns became bitterly divided.
“They’ll try to threaten you,” says Musser. FLDS kids have sneaked into his yard, he says, and paint-balled his house; they’ve also thrown rocks at his car. Other former church members claim their cars have been forced off the road and that dead animals have been left on their porches. For the most part, town officials ignored these complaints, and according to court documents, people have been denied water hookups and even been arrested on false premises.
As the complaints grew, the U.S. Justice Department took notice, filing a lawsuit against Short Creek officials in 2011. The towns eventually settled with the plaintiffs for $5.2 million, but the problems didn’t go away.
Officials in both towns denied allegations that they had threatened and violated rights of non-FLDS members. When the current mayor of Colorado City, Joseph Steed Allred, took the witness stand on Feb. 9, he answered questions concerning the town’s population, religion and education. But when he was asked about Warren Jeffs, the relationship between the FLDS church and town officials, and his wives’ ages at the time of their marriages, Allred looked at the Justice Department lawyer, Sean Keveney, and replied, “I respectfully plead the Fifth.”
For years, Ken Driggs, a legal historian who studies Mormon fundamentalism, wondered how Warren Jeffs managed to wield the power he did. He first met Jeffs in the late ’80s and recalls a spindly, geeky-looking man with an “exceptionally bland” personality. Driggs believes Jeffs’ quiet, unassuming exterior served as a kind of smokescreen, convincing his followers of his righteousness and benevolence, even as he ruthlessly eliminated any person or doctrine that did not support him.
‘I had to take a stand’Dowayne Barlow was one of many who remained in the church, even after Texas authorities convicted Jeffs in 2011 for having sex with two of his “spiritual wives,” ages 12 and 15. Like many of his fellow FLDS members, Barlow says he had no idea that the charges against their leader included the rape and sexual assault of young girls. Instead, Jeffs’ conviction only strengthened his followers’ loyalty. “It didn’t shatter the people as much as it drove people together out of fear that the government was persecuting Warren for his religious beliefs,” says Barlow.
But in the spring of 2012, Jeffs’ brother and surrogate leader, Lyle, ordered Barlow to help “reassign” the children of men whom Jeffs had expelled from the church. For the first time, Barlow began to ask questions. “I just felt that I had to know more,” he says. “If I injured these children by taking them from their homes. … It was too much of a weighty decision for me to do that.”
“I had to make a stand,” he says. Though he knew his decision would have serious consequences, Barlow left the FLDS church, which he now saw as less a church than as the cult of Warren Jeffs. That July, he left Short Creek with Cheryl, his wife, and their 11 children, and moved to Nebraska, where he found work as a contractor. (Cheryl is Barlow’s first wife in what had been a plural marriage; he separated from Rose, his second wife, when he left the church.)
Then, that October, he came home from work one day to find that Cheryl and the kids were gone. On the bed Barlow found a note. “I love you,” it read. “We’ll see you later.”
Earlier that day, FLDS church members showed up unannounced at Barlow’s home and used high-pressure tactics to persuade Cheryl to take the kids and return to Short Creek. They frightened her by saying that Lyle Jeffs would come after her and her children. Two days later, Cheryl called Barlow and described how the men from the church had coerced her into returning to Short Creek. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I made a mistake.”
FLDS leaders ordered Cheryl and the children not to see Barlow. But after a year, worried that the church would try to get custody of her children – a tactic often used to intimidate women into either staying, or returning – Cheryl fled with them to Logan, Utah, where Barlow was living. They reconciled and began the difficult process of beginning new lives. Looking back, Barlow says the traumatic experience of seeing his family torn from him had one good result: “It confirmed these deep feelings we had that something was wrong with (Warren Jeffs).”
EpilogueJeffs, now 60, is eight years into a life sentence for multiple convictions of child rape, held in solitary confinement in a Texas prison. There, he allegedly continues to run the FLDS church from behind bars, communicating with his followers through letters, phone calls and secret recordings taken during his wives’ visits in which he recites his prophesies. On April 6, for instance, the world was supposed to end. This was not the first time Jeffs erred on the timing of the apocalypse, having made a similar prediction for the millennium.
But according to historian Driggs and some community residents, deep cracks are forming in the church’s power. Along with the lawsuit, the church is facing another staggering legal challenge, with 11 high-ranking FLDS members, including Lyle Jeffs, indicted in February on allegations of food-stamp fraud and money laundering. The church controls food distribution for the sect through a vast storehouse, which FLDS-owned farms and businesses contribute to. According to prosecutors, FLDS members were ordered to scan their food-stamp debit cards at church-run stores and leave the money with the owners. Church leaders then funneled the money – an estimated $12 million – to shell companies, which funded purchases like a Ford F-150 and a John Deere tractor. Meanwhile, a growing number of FLDS families were suffering from hunger.
“The one thing he made damn sure was that his public image was unimpeachable, so people would adore and love and respect him,” says Barlow. “That’s probably the biggest heartache for those who have come to understand who he was.” Barlow and his family are now settled in Riverton, Utah, trying to rebuild their lives and religious faith in the mainstream LDS church, in a very different world from the one they left behind. Barlow hopes all the legal action will help reduce FLDS’ power in Short Creek “I think it will change the landscape, certainly politically,” he says. Still, he fears that some of the damage inflicted by Jeffs will be irreparable.
That is a feeling that Barlow knows all too well. “You’ve based your whole life on a set of assumptions, and it’s like a kick in the gut when they turn out to be false.”