Well, Warren Jeffs finally got sent to prison. The sentence was two consecutive five-year terms -- which means he'll be paroled in seven, the way things usually go -- which hardly seems like enough for a guy who arranged for the statutory rape of dozens of adolescent girls, each of whom will be scarred for life by the choices he made on their behalf. But it's the first time in a long time that anybody in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has seen the inside of a jailhouse, and I suppose we should be grateful for a good start.
But, to put this in context, this conviction is simply the third in a series of developments that are making permanent changes in the way the sect operates. As the trial has unfolded, rapid changes on at least two other fronts are raising the odds that on the faraway day that Jeffs leaves prison, he'll be coming home to a community that he likely won't recognize -- and may not even be glad to see him coming.
Subdivide and Conquer
The first development is a wide-ranging financial restructuring that has shattered the financial control the group's leaders exerted over the membership. For decades, everything owned by the church -- houses, property, the labor of its members -- was held in a corporation called the United Effort Plan (UEP). Historically, the assets in the UEP were solely controlled by the sect's Prophet, whose ability to allocate assets gave him near-total control over the community.
However, in May, 2005, the state of Utah -- pointedly noting the UEP's stark resemblance to an organized crime ring -- seized its assets, put them in trust, and began the process of returning them to private hands in ways that would benefit all the members of the community. In September, Ben Winslow of the Deseret Morning News gave an update on how this process is going:
In the end, the privatization of Hildale and Colorado City will likely have a far more lingering effect on the future of the FLDS than Jeff's conviction. However, beyond the loss of both their prophet and their core economic structure, there's a third development that's also going to make it much, much harder for the FLDS to conduct business as usual going forward.
Hildale — For the faithful followers of Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs, this may be just another trial of their faith.
Life appears to be going on here, regardless of Jeffs' conviction on two counts of rape as an accomplice. As one drives through this polygamous border town, there is still signs of resistance to the changes being forced on them. Huge fences are still being erected, trying to keep out prying eyes. Women in the prairie dresses so common to this area scurry away from anyone who asks them questions.
Yet the communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., are about to undergo more changes. Plans are underway to subdivide this community and create the first-ever private property ownership, doing away with the early-Mormon "united order" that has long dominated the twin cities.
In 2005, the courts took control of the $110 million United Effort Plan Trust, which controls homes, businesses and property here. The Utah Attorney General's Office alleged that Jeffs and other top FLDS leaders had been fleecing its assets. The UEP Trust recently underwent a reform, and is now slowly doing away with the "united order" concept in favor of private property. The town councils for both communities are considering the first-ever subdivisions.
In a new report the size of a Salt Lake City-area phone book, the court-appointed special fiduciary of the UEP Trust detailed other changes underway here and across the border in Colorado City, as well as in the FLDS' Canadian enclave of Bountiful, British Columbia.
The latest financial report shows the UEP Trust has about $97,034 in its accounts. The bulk of the UEP's assets are in real estate.
"The fiduciary is investigating the possibility of selling certain trust property in order to secure additional funds which will be needed for the continuing administration of the trust," Bruce Wisan wrote in his report to the judge.
Property taxes continue to be paid, but in some cases it is a struggle. Some people are starting to move in to abandoned properties on UEP land.
The Utah Domestic Violence Prevention Program and the Safe Passage grant (to help women leave abusive situations in closed societies) recently put up a mobile home in Colorado City for a homeless single mother, Wisan wrote. The woman, who was part of the FLDS Church, is being allowed to stay there rent free.
Recently, Wisan said he was approached by four people who want to return to homes they were kicked out of. After getting no response from anyone living in the homes now, Wisan will allow the old tenants to move back in.
"In the event the present occupants refuse to vacate the residences, the fiduciary intends to pursue legal eviction proceedings against such occupants," he wrote.
The Long Arm of The Law
Hildale and Colorado City are the most famous FLDS communities -- but they're not the only ones. According to Jon Krakauer, the FLDS has also quietly built compounds in Mancos, CO; Pringle, SD; Eldorado, TX; and other cities across the west. There are persistent rumors of other ranches just over the Mexican border, and also as far south as Cancun. The largest one of all may be the 1,000-member community of Bountiful, BC, just over the Canadian border.
Over the years, FLDS prophets have been very canny at keeping the government at bay by using their inter-state and international network of safehouses in a shell game that shuffled fugitive men out of reach of the law; women and children out of sight of suspicious social service agencies; and family members far yonder as a means of disciplining out-of-favor members. And, of course, it gave them lots of places to hide their money. For decades, church leaders have relied on this network to nimbly hopscotch over prosecutors, sheriffs, revenue agents and auditors, and inquisitive social workers.
The upshot has been that, even when blatant crimes were being committed, it was virtually impossible for local prosecutors to put together a case that would stick. The scope of the problem was so much larger than any one jurisdiction; and the FLDS leaders were a law unto themselves as long as they could keep it that way.
But that day is over now, too. Tracking, capturing, and trying Jeffs was the catalyzing event that finally brought district attorneys and attorneys general throughout the western states -- and even prosecutors in BC -- together. They've been having meetings, forming relationships, and coordinating strategy on how to deal with the FLDS on something more than the local level. These conversations are leading to stronger laws, faster sharing of information, and an emerging set of best practices. (In BC, where the church is sheltered by religious freedom laws that are absurdly lax by American standards, we're also hoping for some updated legislation.) As law enforcement finally gets its arms around the full scope of the FLDS network, the group's freedom to live outside the law is going to be increasingly challenged and restricted.
A Different Future
With over 10,000 members and growing -- and a public profile that's only grown higher since Big Love and other PR efforts to improve their image -- the FLDS isn't going to crumble just because one prophet spends a few years behind bars. But, lacking iron-fisted leaders, vast pots of money, and it accustomed ability to evade government authorities, it will be forced to take on other structural forms and means of financing in order to survive.
Already, according to Krakauer, small pockets of FLDS families are being established in larger cities like Las Vegas -- evidence of a trend that moves members out of the compounds and into the American mainstream. That and their increased willingness to talk to the media -- and demand respect for their right to live as they choose -- suggest that their first impulse will be to diffuse the movement across the country, and step up their demands for social and legal acceptance.
In the end, this diffusion may make the church stronger, normalizing their unusual lifestyle and opening the community to more adherents. (At the same time, we will almost certainly see splinter sects of die-hard members regrouping, forming compounds of their own and trying to re-create the authoritarian glory days of the Jeffs and Blackmores.) On the other hand, over the long haul, the strategy of moving into town may be their undoing: without the immersive intensity of compound life, the passion may cool, and dispersing members can easily drift away.
Whichever way it goes, Jeffs' conviction marks the end of a very long era in the history of fundamentalist Mormonism. Without the trappings of money, high-SDO patriarchs, compounds, and near-perfect legal immunity, the only way the FLDS will survive is by finally making accommodations to the outside culture it's worked so hard to resist for so long.
Apart from Krakauer, there probably isn't a reporter on the FLDS beat who's done more to report this story than the Vancouver Sun's Daphne Bramham. Her coverage of the Bountiful community is almost never referenced in the US press; but she's been tireless and persistent in covering both the legal issues surrounding that community, and the larger social costs that the province incurs due to its continued existence.
(Among other things, she was the first one to really examine the plight of the "lost boys" -- the FLDS sons who are banished from the community at puberty, so they won't be around to compete with the elders for the young girls. They often end up on the streets in Vancouver and Phoenix, without money, skills, or education.)
The full collection of Bramham's articles on this issue over the past few years is here. It's a different take on the same problem -- one that really brings home what all the ways the FLDS shell game got played.