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LM Otero, AP
Willie Jessop, an FLDS Church spokesman, wipes his face when he stops in an empty prayer room in the school house at Yearning for Zion ranch near El Dorado, Texas, May 21, 2008.

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.

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."

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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."

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com