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Who Is Warren Jeffs And How Did He Become The Leader Of The FLDS?

Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was convicted of child sexual assault in 2011.

By Jill Sederstrom
Warren Jeffs G 1

Warren Jeffs was once a school administrator described by one historian as having an “exceptionally bland” personality.

But despite that, Jeffs would go on to become the most powerful leader of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a religion centered on its endorsement of plural marriages and strict devotion to God. It is a separate and distinct entity not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). 

Jeffs — who was later convicted of two counts of child sexual assault — demanded “perfect obedience” from his followers, and used fear, control and manipulation to create an isolated community convinced that Jeffs was the chosen “prophet” who could speak directly to God, according to a 2016 feature in Rolling Stone.

As his power within the community grew, Jeffs exiled some of the FDLS’ most senior members, began marrying off underage girls, separated families, and acted as the sole gate keeper for the Yearning for Zion ranch in west Texas, a compound built for only for those he deemed to be the most holy followers.

“This would be the place where the most holy, the most fervent, the most loyal members of the FDLS community would be called to live and serve under Warren Jeffs and literally the day would come when that community would be lifted off the face of the earth, the rest of the earth would be wiped clean and those most holy and faithful, fervent people would be placed back on the earth as the almighty’s holy people,” Nate Carlisle, a former Salt Lake Tribune reporter explained in Peacock’s new docuseries “Preaching Evil: A Wife on the Run With Warren Jeffs,” available to stream now.

But just how did Jeffs, a seemingly unremarkable school principal, rise to power within the controversial religion?

Jeffs was born in 1955, nearly two months premature. The son of Rulon Jeffs, his mother would later insist his survival meant he was God’s chosen one.

The family were members of the polygamist religious group and Warren was the son of Rulon’s fourth wife, Marilyn Steed. 

The FLDS had been governed by a group of seven men known as the Council of Friends. But in 1986, Rulon became its first sole leader, known as “the prophet” according to The San Angelo Standard-Times.

Jeffs, who grew up at a compound in suburban Salt Lake City, became the principal for the church’s private school, Alta Academy, where he taught the group’s youngest members that “perfect obedience requires perfect faith” and was considered a strict taskmaster, who told children how to dress, what to learn, and how to act.

Ken Driggs, a legal historian of Mormon fundamentalism, met Warren in the 1980s and described him as a unassuming, geeky-looking man with an “exceptionally bland,” personality, High Country News reports.

But beneath the boring facade, there was evidence of his sinister ways.

According to Carlisle, there were rumors that Warren sexually assaulted some of the children he taught in the school's bathroom.

“It became an awful place for a lot of the children in the FLDS,” he said.

Female students in the school remember Warren taking particular interest in some of the teenage girls.

“The ones he would groom were the lambs. The ones who were meek and quiet, and submissive and no mouth,” former FLDS member Sarah Draper said in “Preaching Evil.” “Those were the ones he would groom and those were the ones who would become his wives.”

Jeffs seized an opportunity for even greater power in 1998, when his father suffered a debilitating stroke.

“This is when Warren really asserts himself,” Carlisle said. “He controlled who Rulon got to see, who Rulon talked to, even who Rulon sat next to in church, he’s deciding who gets access to Rulon.”

Rulon’s wife, Naomie Jeffs—who would later be married off to Jeffs along with many of his father's wives—said that after the stroke, he became Rulon’s “spokesman.”

“Warren was always the one that would give the sermon at the end of the meeting,” she recalled in the docuseries. “Rulon never really stood up at the pulpit again after his stroke.”

Jeffs directed another element of his father’s life as well: As Rulon’s health declined, Warren had his octogenarian father marry young new wives—the youngest of whom who was just 16 years old—presumably so that he could eventually “inherit” his father’s wives himself, according to “Preaching Evil.”

When Rulon died in 2002, Jeffs was already positioned to become the next prophet, even though he hadn’t been Rulon’s oldest son. According to Carlisle, there were “20, 30, 40 siblings in front” of Warren.

“There were other men who were already in the hierarchy and the tradition was that power would succeed to one of those men,” he said. “Warren was lower in the pecking order and yet Warren is the one who rose up to take over the FLDS.”

His new role of prophet was cemented when Naomie presented testimony to the congregation that shortly after Rulon’s death she had looked at Jeffs and saw Rulon’s face instead, a sign she told church members, that meant Rulon had selected Warren for the coveted position.

“Do we really believe in Uncle Rulon? Because if we do, we believe that Warren Jeffs is the Prophet of God at this time,” Naomie testified in the church meeting, according to a recording obtained by the docuseries. “We need not look anywhere else. The prophet always appoints the man who is going to succeed him, and I can bear testimony that Father kept Warren close to him for a reason. For this reason.”

The reign under Jeffs was vastly different than it had been during his father’s leadership. While FLDS members had once remained friendly with non-members in the community, Warren began isolating the group.

In 2004, he gathered the community together and read the names of 21 “master deceivers” including the names of four of his own brothers and other high-ranking men in the church. They were exiled and were forced to leave their families behind, Rolling Stone reported.

Jeffs allegedly “reassigned” their wives to other men.

“Everyone was scared of losing their families,” former FLDS member Terrill Musser, who left the church at 18, told High Country News.

Some of the men who were exiled began filing lawsuits against Jeffs and going to law enforcement, sending him on the run to evade authorities. He told his followers that God had told him to find a new refuge and traveled with wife Naomie—who had been named his scribe and tasked with recording his sermons and daily activities in a journal—throughout the southwest.

Jeffs finally decided to settle in Texas, a state that, at the time, had one of the lowest ages of consent for marriage at 14 years old. He instructed his followers to build an expansive temple and homes inside a large walled off community that would become the Yearning for Zion ranch.

Only the chosen FDLS members were allowed entry—even if it meant separating children from their mothers if the women weren’t deemed worthy enough to come.

“The only ones allowed in these places of refuge are those named by revelation, the Lord telling me who can go there,” Jeffs said, according to Naomie’s journal.

There, secluded from law enforcement, Jeffs began marrying underage girls, even taking a bride who was just 12 years old.

“I declared to the family, the laws of man are wrong,” Jeffs proclaimed, according to Naomie’s journal. “There is no such thing as underage marriage. The Lord God has the right to rule and when he appoints a marriage let no man defy God.”   

Fearing retaliation from law enforcement, Jeffs went on the run once again with Naomie in tow, but the pair were stopped near Las Vegas on Aug. 26, 2008 and he was arrested.

Jeffs was ultimately convicted in Texas of sexual assault of two underage girls and sentenced to life in prison and is serving out that sentence at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Louis C. Powledge Unit, near Palestine, Texas.

Watch “Preaching Evil: A Wife on the Run With Warren Jeffs,” on Peacock now.