But it wasn't until Elissa Wall stepped forward in Utah with her gripping story of an agonizing underage marriage that the Jeffs empire truly began crumbling. When she testified openly in a St. George courtroom in 2007, a jury convicted Jeffs of rape as an accomplice because he performed Wall's unwanted marriage to a cousin she detested. Jeffs' conviction was later overturned on appeal, but the high-profile court battle galvanized critics and the publicity had the effect of priming Texas authorities for action.
Months later, phone calls started coming into a child-abuse hotline in Texas. They were supposedly from a girl who was being abused and held against her will by an FLDS husband. Texas authorities were ready to believe her — years of publicity about Jeffs made the calls seem credible. As it turned out, the calls were an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a mentally disturbed woman in Colorado. By the time authorities found out the calls were phony, the die was cast. Texas Rangers armed with search warrants were already inside the FLDS-owned Yearning For Zion ranch.
They may not have found what they were looking for, a girl who didn't exist, but they found something else that proved to be the undoing of Warren Jeffs.
"When they got there," Brower said, "they found things they never thought they would have found."
It was a mother-lode of evidence. Millions of documents, photos and recordings were stored in a huge vault protected by a massive metal door similar to those used on bank vaults. They were the secrets of Warren Jeffs, meticulously recorded over many years. In the course of the trial, the prosecution used interlocking records, each tending to verify the others because they cross-referenced the same events.
There were detailed records of marriages, births, and family relationships. It appears that virtually nothing Jeffs said or did went unrecorded, including his crimes. The records included his pronouncements and alleged revelations, details of his daily life, commentaries he made about events in the community, business discussions, sermons and ruminations on matters of faith and sex.
Former FLDS member Rebecca Musser, who helped Texas Rangers sort through the documents, testified that Jeffs' obsession with record-keeping stemmed from an unorthodox belief. "If it wasn't recorded on Earth," Musser explained to the jury, "it wasn't recorded in Heaven."
Jeffs was so thorough in his obsession with record-keeping that, even while he was on the road as a federal fugitive, he carried strong evidence of his crimes. An audiotape of himself evidently having sex with a 12-year-old was confiscated when he was arrested near Las Vegas; another copy of the same recording was found in the vault in Texas.
In the end, the 2008 raid produced an enormous amount of documentation on issues the critics had been talking about for years. "It backed up and validated the people who had escaped the religion," Brower said.
Now that Jeffs' records are coming into public view, it appears that most of the worst accusations in Utah and Arizona were true — hundreds of illegal marriages, dozens of underage brides, sexual assaults on pre-teens. It seems that FLDS members lived in an atmosphere of tyranny, indoctrination and female subjugation under a system of ruthless, reckless one-man rule.
Looking back to the time when Jeffs was consolidating power a decade ago, Brower said most residents of Utah and Arizona generally ignored the group. Few recognized that Jeffs was taking the group in a shocking new direction as he sought younger and younger wives.
"Especially in Utah, it seems that the FLDS kind of are part of the landscape. They've been around for a long time, so it was hard for people to pay attention to what was going on," Brower said. "But the public needs to know those things. Public apathy needs to be left by the wayside."
After the 2008 raid, the Texas Supreme Court ordered state social workers to return more than 400 children to their FLDS parents. Following Jeffs' conviction on sex charges last week, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott dismissed concerns that the youngsters are now being abused.
"On the information that we have," Abbott said, "we think that all the wrong-doers have been identified and all the children victims have been identified. If we ever learn about any more evidence or information about any other children who either have been or could be harmed, we want to take swift action to protect them."
The Attorney General's statement glossed over the sense of powerlessness many law enforcement officials have voiced over the years: without someone on the inside blowing the whistle and providing evidence, investigations are difficult and prosecutions are rare.
Flora Jessop is not complacent about that and supports a petition currently making the rounds in Texas which calls for the children to be removed once again from the FLDS compound.
"I think the abuse has continued," Jessop said last week. "And I think those children have been spirited away into isolation and we will never ever have an opportunity to protect them again."
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