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The downfall of Warren Jeffs began long before Texas raid

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 9 2011 12:43 p.m. MDT

In this July 28, 2011 photo, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs arrives at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas. He was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison.

Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

HILDALE, Washington County — The downfall of Warren Jeffs did not begin with the highly publicized raid by Texas Rangers in 2008.

One of the turning points came years earlier on the Utah-Arizona border when Ross Chatwin stood on his front porch and held up a book with a swastika on its cover.

Days before, Jeffs had expelled Chatwin and 20 other members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, ripping away their wives and children and assigning them to other men.

When he waved the book in front of news cameras in 2004, Chatwin instantly made "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" a metaphor for the reign of a prophet who was in the process of consolidating his power.

"Polygamy is not the problem here," Chatwin exclaimed to reporters. "It's the dictatorship."

Chatwin's act of defiance was part of a growing clamor against Jeffs' one-man rule. At the FLDS prophet's sprawling home in Hildale, Utah, and later on the road as one of the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" fugitives, Jeffs was under siege for years by a small army of outside critics, former FLDS members and law enforcement officials.

Utah and Arizona is where the unraveling began, largely because some people escaping from Jeffs' group decided not to walk away and forget about it.

Chatwin was certainly not the first to speak out. Former members were already waging battles in court and in the news media. Flora Jessop fled the group as a teenager and was active in helping others trying to get out. She was also adept at bringing their stories to the attention of news reporters in Utah and Arizona.

Her cousin Carolyn Jessop fled the FLDS community in 2003 and successfully fought a legal battle against her polygamist husband, winning custody of her children. She later published a book, "Escape," that helped many readers understand the emotional turmoil some plural wives were experiencing.

Chatwin's news conference, though, signaled to a larger audience that something fundamental had changed as Jeffs rose to power following the death of his father and predecessor, Rulon Jeffs.

"Warren Jeffs was taking it to new levels of deviance," said private investigator Sam Brower whose new book, "Prophet's Prey," describes his years of investigation into the FLDS culture. Brower initially went to work for Chatwin and later investigated on behalf of lawyers representing former FLDS members.

"Law enforcement was dragging their feet," Brower said.

The dam began to break in Utah as more former members mustered the courage to talk about Warren Jeffs. "More and more victims were coming out, and we were able to find out more and more exactly what he was doing," Brower said.

Flora Jessop's sharp rhetoric provided fodder for news stories. A sound-bite outside the courtroom last week in Texas is characteristic of her style. "You don't throw your children into the volcano, and say, 'Uh, it's just part of our religion.'" Jessop said. "These people are throwing their children into the volcano."

While public awareness was growing, officials in Utah and Arizona were turning up the heat, although never fast enough to satisfy Jeffs' critics. Utah prosecuted FLDS police officer Rodney Holm for marrying an underage plural wife at a time when he was sworn to uphold the law. Both states made legal moves aimed at breaking Jeffs' hold on community property and such institutions as the local school district.

The national publicity coming out of Utah and Arizona was noticed in West Texas. Not long after Chatwin held his "Hitler" news conference in 2004, residents of Eldorado, Texas, observed women and children with FLDS style clothing and hairdos. They sounded the alarm. Flora Jessop flew to Eldorado and held a joint news conference with the sheriff to announce that a major FLDS community had been secretly under construction. Local authorities promised to keep an eye on the place.

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