If you read Jon Krakauer's 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven, and followed the trial of Warren Jeffs — notorious leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints, now in jail for life for sexual assault (after a stint on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List) — you'll dig Sam Brower's Prophet's Prey (Bloomsbury, 336 pgs., $27).
Brower's book, subtitled My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, is the thrilling and disturbing tale of the private investigator's relentless crusade for justice — not just in the Jeffs case, but against high-ranking FLDS members across Texas, Utah, Arizona, and beyond. The sect, which is completely removed from mainstream Mormonism, is best-known for its polygamist beliefs, often pairing underage brides with elderly church leaders (Jeffs is estimated to have over 50 wives, including the two, ages 12 and 15, that he was convicted of assaulting). They're extremely well-funded, with leaders who live in mansions even as the rank-and-file go hungry. They also don't care much for outsiders.
In Brower's estimation, the FLDS church is "an organized crime syndicate that specializes in child abuse" — after reading his book (with a preface by Krakauer), you'll tend to agree. He'll be reading in Berkeley Tues/15; I caught up with him by phone at his home in snowy Cedar City, Utah, just over an hour's drive from FLDS stronghold Short Creek, an isolated community straddling the Utah-Arizona border.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: I was just watching the recent clip of you on Dr. Phil, opposite former FLDS spokesperson Willie Jessop [an antagonistic figure in Prophet's Prey]. That must have been an interesting experience.
Sam Brower: It was. It was weird, first of all, being there with Willie, who's been on the opposite side of things throughout this whole ordeal. And then, Willie showed his true colors — he can't answer a question and lies at the drop of a hat.
SFBG: He was in the news a couple of weeks ago, when the story broke about one of Warren Jeffs' wives escaping from the church compound. I think you were quoted in the article, actually.
SB: Yeah, could be. One of Warren Jeffs' wives took off, which is a very rare occurrence. This is the second one — the first one, I wrote about in the book; her name was Janetta — so it's kind of a weird thing that they would actually let one of his wives get out of their grip, you know. And then just recently I heard that she has gone back to him. She's with her family now, and so she's back in the FLDS from what I understand. I was just waiting for that to happen. I know that they can't afford to have one of Warrens wives out and talking, and that they'll stop at nothing to try and get her back.
SFBG: You talk about this in the book a bit, but why is it so hard for them to escape?
SB: Number one, it's not like they're brainwashed. A lot of people use the term brainwashed, but it's much, much deeper than that. They're indoctrinated. It's a cultural thing, and they really have no understanding of any other parts of the world. Their entire existence revolves around their life with the prophet. Many of them don't have birth certificates. They don't have drivers' licenses. They're with "caretakers," they're called — so there'll be a group of wives and children that are being watched over by their caretakers.
In fact, it would be hard to trace wives, because they have no credit. They're like non-entities. So it's easier to trace their caretakers, the guys that are watching them. So they're being watched constantly. They're being shuttled around from place of refuge to place of refuge, and so, you know, they just don't have a life or a world outside the relationship with Warren Jeffs and the church. So for [the wife who recently escaped] to get away is highly unusual, and my understanding was that she was in her stocking feet. She literally ran away.
SFBG: Do you think she had her own children that she left behind?
SB: I don't know if she does or not. Some of his wives have not had children, mostly because there's just so many wives. By the same token, some very young wives do have children, too. And I know that part of their existence is a very deviant existence, it's a very deviant life — some of the things that came out in Warren's trial regarding, basically, ritualistic orgies with his wives, in which he would say, "We all have to participate." It was something that, before they became involved with Warren, was completely foreign to them. And it has to rock them a little bit to go from absolutely no sex education, no idea what it's even about, to such a bizarre world.
SFBG: Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence. Is he still in charge of the church?
SB: He's running the show from prison as much as he can. While he was in jail, he had more access, because he was spending tens of thousands of dollars a month on calls from the jail. Now that he's in prison he's more restricted, but he still gets a 15-minute phone call every day, and he has two hours' worth of visits on Saturday and on Sunday. And there are people who are called to visit him for those two hours on each day, and take down his revelations and notes and orders to the people.
So he's still running the show, not as freely as had been in the past, but he still is, and he has his brother, Lyle Jeffs, who is now the prophet's mouthpiece — the man who's running the show on the ground, who is just as bad as Warren. Some people say he's worse. And he also has his places of refuge all around the country in Colorado, South Dakota, and Texas, and different compounds. He has little kind of clones of himself there who also run those operations as well.
It's a little bit of both: he's still overseeing everything. He still has his input in everything. But he's gotten rid of anybody within his crime syndicate that has any kind of moral compass, and instilled people who are blindly obedient and will do whatever he tells them to do.
SFBG: In the book, the first case that draws you into the FLDS world illustrates that obedience: a family nearly loses their home after the father is kicked out of the church, seemingly on a whim, and nobody outside of his immediate family questions the decision. How come nobody rebels?
SB: That's the hardest thing for us, people on the outside, to wrap our minds around. And I think that's what really grabbed me when I first started working on it, when I saw [the recently excommunicated man] Ross Chatwin holding up a copy of [history book] The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich [in a newspaper photo]. I read that book when I was a kid, and in my mind I was thinking, "Good grief, when I was a kid and read that book, I couldn't understand what would make this whole country do whatever this madman told them to do!" And that's what Ross Chatwin was saying.
And sure enough, I go down to [Short Creek], and good grief, there's 10, 15 thousand people that'll do anything that this guy tells 'em. He tells them to leave their home, their family, kids, and go repent from a distance, and they do it, and the wives go to another man. It's nuts, crazy. It took me a long time to kind of get a feel for it. I still struggle with it. It goes back again to this deep-seated cultural thing, where blind obedience gets you stature within the culture. The more you can demonstrate this obedience, the more you demonstrate your faith, and the higher up on the pedestal you are.
It's to the point where, this is an example, a mother who's a nurse has a daughter who is hemorrhaging. The daughter was married off at 14 to some old lecher, and she's hemorrhaging and about ready to die, and the mother won't take her daughter to the hospital because Warren Jeffs told her not to, because they might be able to trace her to the "priesthood," quote-unquote, and it may result in charges. It may lead them to the prophet. And she doesn't do it. She's willing to let her daughter die to prove her obedience and her faith. It illustrates how there are no boundaries there.
I've thought many times that, had not there been a handful of people that went after Warren Jeffs and tried to expose these things, how would it have ended? In fact I still worry about that. Would it have been another Waco, or another Jonestown? Right now there are edicts coming down that are out in Short Creek that there can be no more sex, period. Not even for procreation. They can't watch TV, listen to the radio, read books, magazines, newspapers. Get on the internet. Nothing. They have no hope in their lives, no joy. It makes me wonder, how's this all going to end? Is going to be, just a vision, some kind of huge manifestation of their faith that ends in some other tragedy? What's going to happen?
SFBG: If their leader is in jail and they're all behaving the same way, is there any hope for the future?
SB: I wish I knew. The way it appears now is that it's just getting worse. Lyle Jeffs is a real mental case himself, and he's the one who's running the show now. I have a client, actually a half brother of Lyle and Warren, who wants to have his children. They're his children. He has legal custody of them. But Lyle has taken them and is hiding the children from him. So we're having to go to court, and jump through all these hoops to try and get this guy's children back. And for some reason Lyle just doesn't want him to have these children. Because he's received some revelation saying that he shouldn't have his own children.
I see it just continuing to get worse and worse. It's anybody's guess, really.
SFBG: You mentioned earlier that the church is like a "crime syndicate" — is that sort of the go-to argument to convince people who wonder about freedom of religion in this case?
SB: The freedom of religion thing is the FLDS's wild card. You know, they try and go around and say that people are going after them because they're an unpopular religion, and they practice polygamy, or whatever. But the fact is, they have turned into a crime syndicate that specialized in child abuse. And everything they do is in support of their illegal activities. They marry little girls off as young as 12 years old. They groom them from the ages of eight, nine, even younger, to become "heavenly comfort wives."
You know, you can can believe whatever you want, as part of your religious doctrine or theology. If you want to believe that it's OK to sacrifice virgins and throw them in a volcano, that's fine. But when you start acting on those beliefs — when you start breaking the law — then it's not OK anymore. And that's what they've done. They've regressed to the point where, anything they do, anything that's in violation of the law is, to them, within their rights to do that. That's part of their free exercise of religion. And that's not true. That's not what the constitution says. It's not OK to break the law just because you think it's part of your religion. You can believe it if you want, but you can't act on it.
SFBG: In the book, you discuss your own faith as a member of the mainstream Mormon church. I know the two aren't connected, but is the FLDS church a topic of interest for mainstream Mormons? What's been their reaction to the book?
SB: I think mainstream Mormons have been very interested in it. It's one of the few times they're able to read about it and find out what's going on without being blamed for it. In fact, I just did a signing in Salt Lake City that was attended by a lot of mainstream church members.
SFBG: It sounds like you're still very involved in FLDS cases, even now that Warren Jeffs is in prison. What are you up to now, and — as seen in the book — are you still a target for the church?
SB: Yeah, I'm still not on their Christmas list. I still have clients that are FLDS or former FLDS, and am still involved in it, and I guess I will be for as long as they're still abusing children. It's been a roller coaster ride and of course they do everything they can to try and get me out of the way, but it hasn't worked in eight years. I feel sometimes like [the third] Godfather movie, where Michael Corleone says, "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in." I have those moments every once in awhile, but I think I'm probably going to be in it for awhile.
When Warren's trial happened, it was a good feeling in Texas. Life plus 20. But it was kind of bittersweet at the same time. Because then I leave, and I've got another client who's still struggling to get his kids back. Lyle Jeffs is still doing the same things out in Short Creek. And part of me is going, "Yeah, we've come a long way. Things are happening." But also, it's still going on, too.
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