Sex, Teens, and God: The Next Generation of Polygamy in Arizona

The next generation of Polygamy in Arizona.
Published: Aug. 10, 2022 at 5:00 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 11, 2022 at 5:39 PM MST
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COLORADO CITY, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — It’s been 11 years since polygamous leader and self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs was found guilty of raping two young girls and sent to a Texas prison cell for what will probably be the rest of his life.

Those prison walls, however, have certainly not stopped Jeffs from communicating with his many followers. Over the years, Jeffs has continued to send messages, edicts, and directives from behind bars. But many say that last June, Jeffs’ messages from behind bars changed; a so-called revelation. It was shocking news to many critics of Jeffs but celebrated with “gratitude and delight” by his faithful followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

In his “revelation” issued on June 3, Jeffs tells his faithful that after nearly a decade-long moratorium, the performance of celestial plural marriages will soon commence again. But only for those deemed worthy, of course. Jeffs is also calling on some ousted FLDS members to return and for fathers to gather their children.

Many FLDS members were reportedly delighted at the prospect of families reuniting again after hundreds were torn apart by Jeffs years ago. “It’s always good to hear from him,” said FLDS member Norma Richter. “That’s why we’re here still after so many years.”

WATCH PART 1:

Mike Watkiss returns to Arizona's Family as a special correspondent to share the story of a family who left FLDS, and some of their children, behind.

Christine Marie runs a charitable organization in Colorado City called Voices for Dignity that provides help and support to FLDS families. “The FLDS have been through trauma from the inside, from the outside … every which way,” Marie said. “From what I’m being told, the FLDS are elated by it [Jeffs’ revelation]. They have families that are being reunited. There is hope that marriages will resume in the future.”

Jeffs added that sinners would be “cast out,” leaving others who have been through this before, fearing the clouds of the past are once again starting to gather. “Now it just feels like it’s just crushing us slowly. I think it’s called torture,” said Maxene Jessop, a former FLDS member. “It’s killing us and we can’t take it anymore.” Maxene and her husband, Daniel, reacted with fear and anger at the prospect of FLDS plural marriages once again being performed. “So many hearts are being broke and this has to stop,” Maxene said.

It’s a prospect that hits close to home for the couple.

A month ago, their 17-year-old daughter visited her two older sisters, 19-year-old twins who are members of the FLDS church. They have not seen their 17-year-old since. The Jessops are left to wonder if their daughter is being pulled back into the fold, just as an effort to resume celestial polygamous underage marriages is gaining steam. “That is my greatest fear, yeah, that she is getting sucked into that,” Maxene said.

In his revelation, Jeffs designates one of his sons, Heleman Jeffs, to help “orchestrate God’s will” in reuniting families. It’s a notion the Jessops scoff at. “Families are being torn apart because of the FLDS religion,” Maxene said.” They are pulling people … just ripping families apart.”

In 2002, then-19-year-old Ruth Stubbs fled Colorado City with her two young children while pregnant with a third. She recounted how, at age 16, she was married by Jeffs to a 32-year-old police officer named Rod Holm. Not only was Holm twice her age, but Stubbs also says he already had two wives and nearly 20 children.

“You don’t get a choice in the FLDS,” she said.

Twenty years ago, Stubbs was only seeking custody of her kids so they wouldn’t be returned to her husband and, therefore, under the control of Warren Jeffs. Prosecutors in St. George, Utah, picked up on the case, and Holm was later sent to prison after being convicted of sexual assault of a minor. That case set the stage for charges against Jeffs that would follow soon after. Now, Stubbs is helping her friends, Maxene and Dan, try to get their 17-year-old daughter back before plural marriages resume. “They took her saying they were going to bring her back in a week, and then called and said, ‘no, we’re not bringing her back,’” Stubbs said. “They crossed state lines.”

The Jessops realize time is running out to rescue their daughter before she turns 18 next year. “I want my daughter back,” Maxene pleaded. “I want her to spend her last months underage with us.” The couple has gone to court in Utah and has a hearing scheduled later this month. They don’t want to think about what could happen if they fail. “She’s going to continue to be brainwashed and then end up in a plural situation where she has no choice,” Maxene said.

It’s a situation that’s now much more likely, the Jessops believe, thanks to Jeffs’ recent revelation — a revelation being greeted with wildly different reactions on opposite sides of the polygamy divide. On one side, views by current FLDS members like Norma Richter. “Why would many families have five, six generations in this if it wasn’t good?” she asked. On the other side is despair.

On the other side is despair, but the Jessops were a once-devoted FLDS couple. Many people wonder how someone — how entire families — can wind up in a situation where lives are completely under someone else’s control.

“I was a firm believer,” Maxene said. She and Dan were both raised in the border-straddling community commonly known as Short Creek. Both came from prominent FLDS families with deep roots in the faith, and Jeffs arranged their marriage.

Years later, everything changed and the couple fell out of favor with their prophet. The reason? After having seven children, they dared to practice birth control and use contraceptives — a taboo in the FLDS church that got them kicked out.

The couple explained that in August 2015, they were put through an inquisition by Warren’s brother, Lyle Jeffs. “Lyle asked us, and because we’re good, honest people, we just tell the truth,” Maxene said. That was apparently an admission of guilt. The couple says Lyle accused them of murdering an unborn child by using contraceptives.

“He just says, ‘yeah, you’re just going to have to go away. We can’t have that here,’” the couple said. After that, they were basically evicted and sent away on a correction mission. For Dan and Maxene, banishment meant walking away from everything in their lives and moving to Ohio.

They were even given an explanation as to why they had to move so far away. “We were told there were too many ex-FLDS and to go at least two states away,” Maxene recalled. “Colorado and Wyoming was not far enough. ‘You can go more than two states west,’ so we went east.”

Their banishment also meant leaving their children behind, who were turned over to an FLDS caretaker before the couple moved away. But how could they accept that? “Years and years of training the way they want you to think; brainwashing,” the couple said. “That’s why it’s called brainwashing … you think you’re doing God’s will.”

That was also a time in the FLDS church when critics say hundreds of families were being torn apart by Jeffs. “It’s not just our family,” Dan said. “There are hundreds of families, hundreds of children going through this very same experience.”

Wives were ordered to leave their husbands. Parents were ordered to turn their children over to the church. It was a time of surveillance and suspicion when neighbors spied on neighbors. There was also a wave of purges and exiles that in many ways have defined this generation.

And for three agonizing years, the Jessops say they accepted their so-called correction mission. They said they constantly strived to prove themselves worthy so they would be allowed back into the FLDS fold and, more than anything, be reunited with their children. “We all the time planned on going back and getting the children,” they said.

Finally, Dan and Maxene decided they had had enough and three years to the day after giving their children up to an FLDS caretaker, they went back to get them. The transition wasn’t easy. After three years in FLDS control, their younger children barely knew them. Their oldest, twin girls, seemed to have turned against them. And when the twins turned 18, they returned to their FLDS caretaker.

The Jessops then turned their concerns to their next oldest child, their 17-year-old daughter. They thought they could save her and for a time, they say it really worked. The couple said she was doing well outside FLDS, acting like a typical teen. “She was so happy … dating boys, wearing jeans,” the couple said. “She was free.”

That was then. The Jessops said that last month they reluctantly agreed to let the teen go on a week-long camping trip with her older sisters, the still FLDS faithful. They haven’t seen their daughter since. Now they wait for the justice system to step in, as she gets closer and closer to turning 18 — a turning point that could mean losing their child forever.

“I just want the FLDS to leave us alone,” Maxene said. “I want them to just leave us alone.”

To learn more about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS history in Arizona, click below to watch Mike Watkiss’ previous reports about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS church in Arizona.