Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs renounced his role as "prophet" of the polygamist sect in a series of phone calls to family and followers, and again in a videotaped jailhouse conversation with his brother, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday.
But he later retracted his renouncement, saying he had "experienced a great spiritual test."
Those were some of the revelations in the court documents unsealed by the judge handling the criminal case. Jeffs was recently convicted in St. George's 5th District Court of rape as an accomplice stemming from a marriage he performed between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
The documents were originally filed under seal in July by Jeffs' defense attorneys, who successfully fought to keep the jailhouse statements sealed before the trial. Judge James Shumate had said the jailhouse recordings were so inflammatory they could have affected the FLDS leader's right to a fair trial.
However, the series of court filings dating back for months were suddenly made public Tuesday without explanation when they were posted on the Web site of the Utah State Courts.
A hearing had been scheduled next week to discuss news media requests for unsealing documents in the Jeffs case. It is unknown if that hearing is now moot. Attempts to reach defense attorneys and prosecutors on Tuesday night were unsuccessful.
State courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said all documents have not been unsealed in the Jeffs case, and that may be addressed next week.
"In general, when documents are sealed it's to serve a purpose," she said. "When they're unsealed, it's because there's no need any longer."
In a memorandum filed in support of a motion to limit the jailhouse statements, defense attorney Wally Bugden said Jeffs began experiencing serious medical problems in January. Jeffs was rushed to Dixie Regional Medical Center where he was treated for an undisclosed medical problem and returned to the Purgatory Jail.
"On January 24, 2007, the Defendant made a series of phone calls to family and church members in which he related that when he was 20 years old, he had been immoral with a sister and a daughter," Bugden wrote. "He renounced his role as the Prophet, explaining that the Lord revealed to him that he was a wicked man and has not held the priesthood since he was 20 years old."
The people to whom Jeffs spoke responded that he was the prophet and that he was merely "being tested." Jeffs did not elaborate on the "immoral conduct" of 31 years ago, Bugden wrote.
The next day, Jeffs met in person with a brother at the Purgatory Jail, announcing that he had fasted for three days and had been awake all night.
"At one point in the visit, the Defendant began to dictate a religious message of encouragement to members of his religious community, but he suddenly halted in mid-sentence and remained silent for over 13 minutes," Bugden wrote.
His brother attempted to talk to him, saying he needed to be examined by doctors. Jeffs was unresponsive.
"Towards the end of the visit, the Defendant renounced his role as the Prophet," Bugden said.
Those statements were later recanted by Jeffs in February 2007, the court documents said. Jeffs said, in recorded telephone conversations, he had experienced "a great spiritual test." For the rest of the month, defense attorneys said, he conversed with his family and church members and encouraged their faith.
By March, Bugden wrote Jeffs experienced medical problems again. At that time Jeffs appeared thin, frail and unable to stay alert during a court hearing. In a February court filing requesting Jeffs' personal physicians be allowed to attend to him in jail, Bugden wrote Jeffs had lost 30 pounds while incarcerated.
"The Defendant has fasted, is dehydrated, and sleep deprived," he said.
A mental competency evaluation was ordered, and it was later determined that Jeffs suffered from depression. Judge Shumate eventually deemed Jeffs competent to stand trial.
In arguing for sealing Jeffs' jailhouse comments, Bugden accused Washington County prosecutors of trying to prejudice a jury.
"Insomuch as the recorded statements make vague reference to conduct which may have occurred 31 years ago, the apparent purpose is to depict the Defendant as a wicked and immoral man who acted in conformity with this bad character when committing the alleged offenses," he wrote.
Bugden said the tapes would needlessly consume hours, if not days, of testimony and would be taken out of context without explanation of Jeffs' health problems in the Purgatory Jail.
"It would also require evidence regarding the FLDS religious concept of a 'test of faith' and the intricacies of the belief in divine revelations," he wrote, adding that the jury's emotions and hostilities would be inflamed against Jeffs.
In response, Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap argued for certain Jeffs statements to be admitted in court.
"The statements make it 'more probable' that the defendant exercised power and control over Elissa Wall to encourage her to engage in non-consensual sexual intercourse and make it 'less probable' that the defendant acted merely as a generic religious counselor," Belnap wrote in court papers. "Moreover, the statements are not unfairly prejudicial."
Ultimately, Jeffs' comments were left out of the trial. A jury convicted him of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice in connection with the marriage he performed between then 14-year-old Elissa Wall and her cousin, Allan Steed.
Jeffs faces up to life in prison when he's sentenced Nov. 20. Wall, who was the prosection's star witness, has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against him and the FLDS Church's real-estate arm, the United Effort Plan Trust. In response to the unique nature of the case, as well as the massive news media attention, Washington County prosecutors also sought to protect Wall, who was formerly known in court papers simply as "Jane Doe IV."
"In this case, the victim and her family have relocated and legally changed their name in order to protect their identity and maintain their safety," Belnap wrote in a November 2006 filing released Tuesday. "Their former names were the names they were known by throughout all times relevant to this litigation."
Steed was recently charged in 5th District Court with first-degree felony rape in connection with his marriage to Wall.
Jeffs faces criminal charges of sexual misconduct with a minor as an accomplice and incest as an accomplice in Mohave County, Ariz., case accusing him of performing more child bride marriages. A federal grand jury in Salt Lake City also indicted the FLDS leader on a single charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, stemming from his time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.It is those cases that has defense attorneys concerned about Jeffs' statements. Because of the pending cases, Bugden objected to a probation officer interviewing Jeffs for a pre-sentence report, saying that anything he said can be used against him.