Did you know the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was formerly led by a pedophile, rapist, and polygamsit cult leader? Warren Jeffs, 59, who is serving a life sentence plus 20 years for sexually abusing his child brides, partook in “ritualistic procreation” after it banned husbands and wives from touching each other, according to authorities.
Jeffs’ story may have sprung hilarious parodies (such as the Netflix hit, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) but In Oscar-winner Amy Berg’s (Deliver Us From Evil, West Of Memphis) chilling Showtime documentary, Prophet’s Prey, the cult is anything but funny. Much like the Children of God and Hare Krishna cults, accounts of widespread sexual abuse and coercion still haunt the victims. Berg’s documentary poignantly highlights the menacing perils of subscribing to religious a cult.
The cult was first created as an unofficial branch of the Mormon Church; the polygamist FLDS faction supposedly has thousands of followers and numerous distant compounds spread across the west coast. The notorious Jeffs impregnated a 15-year-old girl and battered another of his child brides, who was only 12 at the time.
The women in his cult were prohibited from donning anything other than traditional prairie dresses and were brainwashed from birth to submit to the church and its men. Simultaneously, the men were encouraged to haveat least three wives each, a custom that promoted pervasive marital rape and widespread juvenile pregnancy, especially among Jeffs’ alleged 70-plus wives.
Jeffs formally took reigns of the group after maneuvering to become heir to his father, FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs. Warren Jeffs married all but two of his father’s widows and previously molested young members of the church with immunity.
Warren Jeff’s nephew, Brent Jeffs, played a pivotal role in his uncle’s trial when he exposed that he was sexually molested by Warren Jeffs from the age of five in the basement of a former FLDS school. At the facility, Warren had an office overseeing the playground, watching from afar as he scoped out his next young victim under the facade of enforcing the dress code.
In the documentary, ex-FLDS member and Rulon’s former friend Ron Rohbock, who was expelled in 2003, discloses how he found out his daughter was raped by Jeffs, two years after it happened. Rohbock then talks about how he rescued his daughter from the church only to watch powerlessly as she was hijacked later and allegedly sent to an FLDS complex in Mexico.
Another one of Jeffs victims was Janetta Jessop, who was only 16 years old when her parents forced her to become Jeffs’ 63rd wife, eventually made call for help from a secluded FLDS complex, which led to her escape. Still discernibly dazed by the nightmare, she tells Berg that “it took away my entire life.”
These disturbing accounts of abuse aren’t just limited to sexual exploitation, but also monetary manipulation. Members of the church were required to give up their life savings, which helped to pay for FLDS compounds across America.
Some surprising findings made by Berg connect the FLDS to several mainstream companies, including Reliance Electric, NewEra Manufacturing, and others whose immense manufacturing profits have aided in making the FLDS organization allegedly worth over $100 million.
After years on the run from authorities, Jeffs was finally and fortuitously caught at a traffic stop outside Las Vegas while travelling with one of his wives and her brother. State troopers found the fugitive cult leader in the backseat of a Cadillac Escalade, eating a salad. Inside the SUV were several laptops, burner cell phones, disguises, and over $50,000 in cash.
During a consequent legal spectacle, in which a Utah appeals judge overturned a 10-year verdict before he was detained on isolated charges by a Texas court, Jeffs regularly pled the fifth; that is, when he wasn’t claiming that God would take vengeance on his oppressors.
His unnervingly-calm voice is heard in recordings, hypnotically delivering epistles to his followers: “Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.” Adding to the intensifying sense of discomfort is the surveillance camera footage of Jeffs’ unpredictable behavior in prison, from where he is still thought to be leading the FLDS cult.
Those who have been studying Jeffs’ actions the closest warn Berg that they fear he might initiate an act of mass violence. It would not be the first time a religious cult has initiated mass violence.
In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult, under the orders of their leader, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, poisoned an entire town in the hopes of debilitating the voting population so that their own candidates could win the Wasco county elections. That terror is the first and largest bioterrorist attack in America’s history.
In 1993, the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, was involved in a violent gun battle with FBI agents (known as the Waco siege) who attempted to raid their Texas compound. After an intense standoff that lasted for 51 days, resulting in 71 deaths, the FBI finally brought the sect down with a tear gas assault.
Imprisonment has only reinforced Jeffs’ chokehold over his staunch flock and strengthened the belief that he’s a martyr for his faith. According to one of the executive producers and writer of Prophet’s Prey, Jon Krakauer: “I worry most of all that [Jeffs] is going to incite some bloodshed, intentionally or not intentionally. Intentionally, probably.”