Federal charges against FLDS leadership have opened a new window into Warren Jeffs's oppressive, ongoing regime. The imprisoned child molester is still very much in control and, while his followers are suffering, they are not doing so equally. While rank and file members have been forced to subsist on beans, sharing in the pain of their incarcerated "prophet," they were also directed to apply for food stamps, which they were directed to turn over to church leaders. The government benefits are enjoyed by the privileged few, while the majority starve.
Lyle Jeffs and 10 other church members, including another Jeffs brother, Seth, were accused in a federal grand jury indictment of conspiring to cheat the federal government -- and qualified recipients -- of millions in food stamp benefits. Families who qualified for federal assistance were told to turn over their food stamp debit cards and take what they needed from a warehouse of pooled resources called "the bishop's storehouse."
As a result, the federal government alleges, some families subsisted on beans, rice and toast, while high-ranking church members were able to serve more expensive meat, turkey and seafood. The government also alleges that the Jeffs brothers and others laundered money by swiping food stamp debit cards and ringing up "ghost" purchases at church-friendly businesses. The laundered cash allegedly was used on big-ticket items such as a Ford F-350 pickup truck ($30,236), a John Deere tractor ($13,561) and $16,978 in paper products.
In addition, another $250,000 allegedly was spent on printing costs for Warren Jeffs' self published, 854-page book of jailhouse revelations, "Jesus Christ, Message to All Nations."
According to federal prosecutors, FLDS leadership swindled around $12 million from taxpayers, a scheme aimed not only at enriching themselves, but at "bleeding the beast," aka., draining the federal government.
One of the ways the church was able to do this was by exploiting the polygamy system it's set up. Celestial wives are not legally recognized as married, making them single mothers, needing and deserving government assistance, but which they then had to hand over to community leaders.
Some FLDS apostates are talking to the feds, including some who had close proximity to the Jeffs family, as cooks, drivers and even former wives. Their testimony is helping the government build its case, but it also offers a more complete picture of life inside the secretive church community, a life that has gotten sharply worse since Warren Jeffs went to prison and further government action divested the church of some of its holdings.
Shortly after his conviction, Jeffs "prophesied" that there must be a "United Order" of the worthiest members. His brothers Lyle and Seth, are so worthy that they are now serving as bishops, in charge of the flock. Lyle grilled members in a sort of inquisition, and the membership was forced to turn all their assets over to the church, to be dispensed as leadership sees fit. So, what independence members had ever enjoyed, was taken away from them, and the hierarchy is more rigid than ever.
With establishment of the United Order, the old Phelps elementary school in Hildale, which closed in 2002 after the prophet ordered all FLDS children home-schooled, was rebranded as Jeffs Academy. Here, followers turned in all their wordly goods for “consecration” in the bishop’s storehouse across the street. They attended “trainings” to learn how to be worthy of eternal salvation and emerged rebaptized as members of the United Order.
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But not everyone was worthy. Those who didn’t make the cut were considered “conditional members”; they could still hand over everything they owned, but they couldn’t live under the same roof as family members in good standing.
Families, as such, don't even exist among the FLDS hoi polloi, as wives and children are reshuffled with the rest of the community property. And, many of them are barely subsisting on a starvation diet, as church select feast on expensive seafood.
The cook, Allene Jeffs Steed, told the FBI last year that while she prepared feasts of lobster and shrimp for the bishop, her own children “lived off toast.” She used duct tape to hold her kids’ shoes together. And hers wasn’t the only FLDS family to go without.
“We were literally starving,” Sheryl Barlow told the FBI in February. She lived in a house with 40 people and said they subsisted on noodles, brown rice, tomato juice and, when they were lucky, bread or a few containers of yogurt.
To those indignities, one could add the total lack of bodily autonomy to which the community's women are entitled. As I wrote here, only a select few FLDS men are now allowed sexual congress with the women of their choosing. These men are known as "seed bearers."
A visit from this spiritually superior stud team begins when a woman receives word from church leaders that “the time was right” for motherhood.
“Initially couples would be very excited by this, due to the ban on marital sex,” a summary of Wayman’s FBI interview states. “But three FLDS leaders showed up at their home wearing black hoods. One advised he was there to have sex with the wife and attempt to conceive a child.” The other two were present to bear witness and write everything down for posterity. The husband was invited to participate, but only as a spectator.
There has been a sharp decline in births within FLDS since the ban on marital relations was handed down from its incarcerated leader. This has also led to a sharp decline in infant mortality. Another of FLDS's dark secrets is shocking levels of genetic abnormality due to its insularity and the incestuous nature of their polygamous family structure.
The FLDS started out as a few fringe families in the late 1890s; as more seeking to follow the principal of plural marriage moved to the polygamous towns in the early-to-mid 20th century, the gene pool grew, but by the 90s, under the stricter control of prophet Rulon Jeffs (Warren's father), they were tightening up and selectively marrying and breeding in a sort of misfired eugenics experiment that ultimately yielded its own genetic disorder: fumarase deficiency (FD), otherwise known as Polygamist Down's. Fumarase deficiency (FD) is an autosomal metabolic recessive disorder, meaning it is necessary for an individual with the condition to receive the mutant allele from both parents. Those affected by the genetic disorder suffer grand mal seizures and often have facial feature deformities and severe mental retardation, with IQs as low as 25. A simple urine test will reveal whether there is an excess of fumaric acid in the urine, if the other, more external symptoms aren't obvious enough. Until the 1990s, there were only 13 known cases of FD in the world. But by 2006, Dr. Theodore Tarby, of Arizona, had children living with the condition in Short Creek, all within just blocks of each other.
Fumarase deficiency, however sensationalized, is not the only genetic disorder found here. One man, who asks to remain nameless to protect his and his family's privacy, describes a lifetime of round-the-clock care and too-frequent hospital visits for his five sons. His eldest died six years ago at 10 years old, he says, and another died in infancy, leaving behind two remaining brothers from a set of spontaneous identical triplets. Those two—and a fifth boy—also suffer from the condition that all of this family's sons were born with: x-linked hydrocephalus. A rare neurological disorder characterized by water on the brain, muscular stiffness, adducted thumbs and aphasia, x-linked hydrocephalus is expressed only in men and carried by women. "You have to either accept" the responsibility of caring for so many children with major healthcare needs "or let it destroy you," says this man, whose wife recently suffered a stroke. The knowledge that one's children are likely to be born with conditions like this one does not prevent FLDS couples from becoming pregnant; instead, they see it as a responsibility and blessing to have many children.
And then there are the more livable genetic conditions. The most common birth defects for children born of close cousins, anywhere, are: harelip, cleft palate, clubfoot, and certain forms of heart valve conditions. These conditions are disproportionately common, relative to the size of the general population, in Short Creek. According to many of the individuals interviewed for this story, these children are seen as special angels sent from God to the FLDS community. They're given the utmost attention and care because the FLDS faithful believe everything in this life is a test before entering the celestial kingdom, and caring well for all of Heavenly Father's children is part of that test.
An infant graveyard has been in disuse since the no sex edict, but I doubt restricting procreation to fifteen fathers is doing much to improve the gene pool.