SALT LAKE CITY — As a torrent of purported revelations flows from imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, there are new allegations that underage girls are being secretly held by his followers, possibly for sexual purposes.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Wednesday he intends to look into the claim.
"I want to be involved in finding houses of hiding," Shurtleff said, "I believe there's still half-dozen to a dozen places around the country where girls are still being held. And I'm very concerned about that."
Although Shurtleff's spokesman later said it's premature to call it an investigation, Shurtleff said he wants to pursue the allegation.
"The worry is that there are still children being trafficked in potential sexual crimes or being held for the prophet for that purpose. We don't know exactly. But that is a concern and that is something I intend to look into."
The latest allegation comes in a context of rising tension in Jeffs' principle community, the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Utah's Hildale in Washington County. According to former members and outside critics, Jeffs set a deadline of Dec. 31 for members to demonstrate their righteousness. They were reportedly ordered to undergo intense personal interviews, to pledge loyalty to Jeffs, to obey new strict rules about personal behavior and to turn over large amounts of money.
As the new year dawned, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people were reportedly told they are not righteous enough to attend regular meetings of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
One man in the blackballed group claims his wife and 10 children were taken away from his home by FLDS leaders at 3 a.m. one recent morning. Private investigator Sam Brower said the man called him in tears.
"He had been left destitute by Warren," Brower said. "All of his money and everything he had had been going to the church and now he'd lost his family. So it's very, very sad and it's a very volatile situation out there."
Texas officials have temporarily suspended Jeffs' prison phone privileges because he apparently broke the rules by speaking to his congregation over the phone on Christmas Day. The FLDS leader is serving a term of "life plus 20 years" following his conviction for sexually abusing two teenage girls he took as spiritual wives.
Printed documents attributed to Jeffs are piling up at Shurtleff's office. The purported revelations, which generally predict doom and destruction, have been mailed by FLDS officials regularly in recent weeks to government offices, churches and even schools around the country.
"We read (them)," Shurtleff said, "just to see if there's any specific threat from him or from his people or any kind of order to do anything that might be a public safety concern." So far, the attorney general said, no specific threats have been identified.
One of the documents specifically singles out a Salt Lake County man as a "traitor" and "liar." But Dr. Dan Fischer considers it an honor to be singled out in that way by Jeffs. He left the FLDS fold for good 17 years ago. A dentist, he founded a company called Ultradent and he's used some of his wealth to start The Diversity Foundation which helps others escape the FLDS community and rebuild their lives outside Jeffs' control.
If that's disloyalty, Fischer is not ashamed of it.
"I would consider it an honor to be outside his camp and not inside his camp," Fischer said. "What he's done to his people is an atrocity."
He said the recent FLDS turmoil has caused more departures from the FLDS fold. "Particularly the young people," Fischer said. "Many of them are getting discouraged, dismayed, and they're simply leaving."
He said Jeffs has ramped up an old tactic, dividing his community into two camps. The most righteous are exalted. The less righteous, the so-called 'Evil Ward,' are being stripped of privileges.16 comments on this story
"They're not actually kicked out," Fischer said. "They're actually on probation, if you will." He said it's a tactic designed to win members' loyalty by using fear as the driving force.
"For those that are devout," Fischer said, "they're getting more solid. The more he scares them, the more the frenzy goes up. The more the mysticism goes up, the more panicky they get, the more certainly committed they become that they must do whatever Warren Jeffs says.
"I think there's a significant number, however, who are beginning to say, 'Enough's enough. This is craziness.'"