HILDALE, Washington County — The FLDS faithful held a very unusual closed-door session on the Utah-Arizona border Wednesday in an apparent emergency reaction to Tuesday’s sentence of life in prison for their leader.
Warren Jeffs was booked into the Texas State Prison system Tuesday night — his head shaven — following his conviction of sexually abusing two underage brides. He will be eligible for parole when he's 100 years old.
But former members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church say Jeffs' followers still revere him and are not likely to give up on his leadership of the faith. Those who have left the sect also expect no big change in leadership, doctrine or policy.
“They’re probably being told, at least according to some of the feedback that I’ve been getting, that he’s being framed and that he didn’t do any of that stuff,” former FLDS member Isaac Wyler said.
Carolyn Jessop no longer lives in town — she fled nearly a decade ago. Her stepdaughter is the 12-year-old whom Jeffs was convicted of having sex with in his Texas temple.
"She's vaporized,” Jessop said. “We don't know where she is. I mean the state doesn't know where these two victims are."
In spite of the verdict and sentence, Jessop said hundreds of children remain at risk and law enforcement does not know how to deal with the problem.
"They do not understand generations of mind control,” she said. “They do not understand the kind of control that these people live their lives under every single day and really truly have no options."
She said what the community needs is legitimate law enforcement. “Right now, every police officer in that community is FLDS,” she explained. “Their prophet, their man that they believe speaks to God is Warren Jeffs, a convicted sex offender.”
She’s also concerned for the children. “A child that is being victimized, that wants help, they have nowhere to call for help. You dial 911, it goes straight into the FLDS,” she said.
There was no mass exodus in 2007 after Jeffs' conviction on Utah sex assault charges. Most members remained loyal. As he spent almost five years in various jails, Jeffs continued to spiritually direct the faith, counsel followers and lead Sunday services by phone.
His legal grip on the church also remains strong.
Last week, the Utah Department of Commerce reaffirmed Jeffs as the head of the corporations that make up the FLDS after a church bishop unsuccessfully sought to seize control. Commerce officials said William E. Jessop ultimately failed to prove he was ordained by the previous prophet to control the church.
Elissa Wall, a former FLDS member and the victim in Utah's 2007 case, called Jeffs' Texas conviction and life sentence a "true miracle."
Even so, she believes that followers have been so indoctrinated in the faith that most will likely remain faithful, believing that Jeffs is God's spokesman on Earth and their path to salvation.
Wyler said because Jeffs' followers haven’t been watching the Internet or TV or reading newspapers, nor following the trial itself, the only information they are getting about what happened is from those meetings.
"They probably have zero contact with the outside world. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't know yet," Wall said of the conviction and sentencing. "And if they do know, I'm sure they are being blamed for this verdict. It's their fault ... they weren't faithful and obedient enough."
There is a report on a reporter's blog who has followed the Jeffs story that FLDS followers plan to erect a 38-foot statue of Jeffs right at the meeting hall, though Wyler doubts that is accurate because he said FLDS members don't believe in idols.
Willie Jessop, Jeffs' former spokesman, said the FLDS community remains in denial but Jeffs' conviction could be the "beginning of a crisis."
He considers himself an active FLDS member, but refused to speak anymore on Jeffs' behalf after he became aware of the Texas child sex charges. Jeffs then attempted to remove him from his home in the FLDS community of Hildale, Utah, and reassign his wives and children, but Jessop refused to leave.
He said Tuesday's life sentence for Jeffs may start a process of "deep soul searching" for some church members.
"I think they may get frustrated and then there's a long grieving process that you have to go through before you can come to the reconstructive state," Willie Jessop said. "That's a long ways down from where we are today."
Contributing: Associated Press