A ringside seat at the surpassingly strange sexual assault trial of Warren Jeffs, who probably wishes he’d never come to Texas.
It was the first day after jury selection in Warren Jeffs’ sexual assault trial, and Deric Walpole, the head of the defense team, seemed nervous. Tyhis was understandable, given the circumstances. Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), had discharged his court-appointed attorney in January, hired a Fort Worth hotshot named Jeff Kearney soon after, and dismissed Kearney abruptly in early July. Then, on July 20, only five days before jury selection was scheduled to begin at the Tom Green County courthouse in San Angelo, he retained Walpole, a compact, burly man with a thick goatee from the McKinney firm of Luce, Nordhaus, and Walpole.
Walpole spent much of that first day begging Judge Barbara Walther for a continuance. “I’ve been working twenty, twenty-one hours a day, and I’m still not ready,” he explained. “Things are moving even quicklier—quicker—than originally projected.” The prosecutor, Eric Nichols, sighed and countered that Jeffs had not only had plenty of time to hire counsel but had retained several highly qualified attorneys, a few of whom were sitting by Walpole’s side. One member of Walpole’s team, who had a brace on his left middle finger, just happened to be casually flexing his injured digit during the argument.
Walpole’s motion was denied, which turned out not to matter much. The next morning he announced, “Mr. Jeffs has released all defense attorneys of record and wishes to address the court.”
“Mr. Jeffs, proceed,” said Judge Walther, with an air that seemed to acknowledge that order and decorum were edging their way toward the exit.
Jeffs slowly stood up to make what would be his first-ever public speech. As a courtroom of people craned their necks to get a good view of him, the wood benches creaked. Jeffs is a tall, thin man, and he was dressed on that day in a dark suit and sensible black shoes. His graying hair was cut short, and he stooped over as if, at age 55, he’d had an early onset of osteoporosis. With his hands folded in front of his waist, he began speaking in a slow, deep, nasal monotone. “I have released all my counsel. I desire to represent myself,” he said. He paused for a few seconds. “And I would like my own motion.” Again, he paused. “I have prepared a writing of the court. I have signed this writing if the court will allow it to be presented.” Walpole passed Jeffs’s writing to the bailiff, and the judge obligingly accepted the papers. She waited a long time, growing impatient, and finally asked, “What else, sir?”
Jeffs started up again as if someone had released a pause button. “Present a motion before this court in a manner in the defense needed pertaining this case,” he said. Repeating awkward phrases strung together in a halting fashion, he mentioned requiring a “greater understanding” for “truth to be preserved.” For “true justice” to be served, he said, he needed a “full defense.” (A schoolteacher seated beside me leaned over and said, “That is not proper English.”)
When Jeffs finished, Walther pulled off her reading glasses and called a recess. Some local ladies in their sixties started whispering to one another. “This is unreal,” one said. “Oh, God,” said another. Nichols, like a boxer who suddenly found himself in the ring with an improvisational dancer, was unsure where to look or what to do. Jeffs’s lawyers quickly gravitated toward the back of the room to confer with one another. I asked Kearney, who had been fired days before but had not been withdrawn by the court, if anything like this had ever happened to him before. It was a dumb question. “No,” he said.
The trial resumed an hour later. Judge Walther asked Jeffs to reconsider his decision. When he refused, she insisted that one of his attorneys remain as “stand-by counsel” in the gallery, a job left for Walpole, with assistance from a well-manicured young Houston lawyer named Emily Detoto. The others, Walther said, could go if they wished. They did, practically leaving skid marks on the courthouse lawn.
Going full steam ahead, Nichols buttoned his suit coat and began his opening argument. A trim, bald man with an unflappable style, he had recently left his position as Texas’s deputy attorney general for criminal justice to go into private practice, but he had stayed on the case to see it through, backed up by a handful of associates. In a methodical manner, he told the jury that in charge one, the aggravated sexual assault of a twelve-year-old, they would hear an audiotape of the incident, and in charge two, the sexual assault of a fifteen-year-old, they would see evidence that a child was conceived. Both assaults, he explained, had occurred at the FLDS’s Yearning for Zion Ranch, in Eldorado, 45 minutes south of San Angelo. Holding up charts explaining the relevant Texas penal code sections, he was somber and unemotional. He never raised his voice, and when he was done, he simply walked back to his chair and sat down.
Throughout the presentation, Jeffs sat silently in his chair, alone at his long, wooden table, staring down as if he were examining the world’s slowest-moving beetle. As the day went on, Nichols questioned witnesses and displayed evidence: documents and digital media seized from the YFZ Ranch, DNA samples, public records. Each time he placed an item on Jeffs’s table, he would wait fifteen seconds, then take it away, without a word from Jeffs.
It was surprising, then, when Jeffs finally offered an objection—somewhat randomly—the next day. Not a brief one, either. It lasted more than an hour and would prove to be the longest speech of the entire proceeding. After an FBI agent named John Broadway authenticated a chart listing the members of Jeffs’s extended family, Jeffs rose from his seat.
“There is a sacred trust drawn by religious leadership,” he exclaimed, “not to be touched by government agencies. . . . This is a standard objection . . . on the basis of religious freedom.” And so on. A half hour in, just when he seemed to be flagging, he caught a second wind, becoming animated, breaking his monotone, and actually addressing the jury. “I am the fifth generation born into plural marriage,” he said. “How can we throw it away and say our forefathers were wrong—who went to prison for these very principles?” It seemed like an apt ending to his speech, but Jeffs carried on. Some of the jurors appeared to feel sorry for him, yet even their interest seemed to wane at about the 45-minute mark. Fifteen minutes later, Jeffs ended with an “Amen.” Taking that as his cue, Nichols stood up and began, “I think I state the obvious—”
“May I say one more thing?” Jeffs interrupted. Nichols sat back down, deflated, and the jury was graced with about fifteen more minutes of material.
This was hardly Jeffs’s only notable performance of the day. Later, while the jury was on break, he pulled some paperwork out of a manila envelope and recited a purported revelation from God. “I, the Lord God of heaven, call upon the court to now cease this persecution against my holy way,” he boomed. “Let it stop now!” He sent a scourge “upon the prosecutorial zeal, to be humbled by sickness and death.” When the judge instructed him not to have an outburst in front of the jury or imply they might be in danger, Jeffs replied quietly, “I am relaying a message.”
“Well, don’t relay the message,” Walther said tersely. “Bring the jury in.
When the trial was over, it seemed like it had been a strange dream. Over the course ten days, the state presented an overwhelming case, an avalanche of evidence revealing the inner workings of a secretive religious sect that has quietly practiced polygamy throughout North America for more than one hundred years. (The mainstream Mormon church, from which the FLDS descended, abandoned the practice in 1890.) The decision by the group’s prophet to represent himself was odd enough. But the sermons, the interminable silences, and the revelations from the Lord—not to mention the horrific evidence itself—made for one of the most bizarre trials in U.S. history.
It was clear from the moment Jeffs opened his mouth, however, that he did not see this trial as an oddity. Rather, he viewed it as a historic moment, and himself as a martyr. The FLDS was not, as he said a few times during the trial, a “fly-by-night” religion. Unlike self-made cult leaders such as David Koresh and Jim Jones, Warren Steed Jeffs was born into his religion. For decades the FLDS has been centered in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, collectively known as Short Creek. Warren’s father, Rulon Jeffs, became president and prophet in 1986. Though Warren was not Rulon’s firstborn—or even a child of his first wife—Rulon rushed to the boy’s side after he was born ten weeks premature and always favored him. Ever the opportunist, Warren made the most of the situation. He grew from a shy, skinny kid into a smart, pimply teenager, confident in his privileged status. He became a tattletale, a quality he later encouraged in others. He also gained a reputation among church members as a Peeping Tom, a curious boy too afraid to actually talk to girls.
Before Warren was 21 years old, he became principal of the FLDS’s private school, Alta Academy, where he tested his power to indoctrinate the upcoming generation. Children would be quizzed on his daily morning speeches. He de-emphasized science and current events and rewrote coursework to reflect his interpretation of FLDS theology. In 1997, after his father fell ill, Warren began positioning himself to replace Rulon as president and prophet. In a manner that was as insensitive as it was transparent, he told church members shortly after Rulon suffered a major stroke, “My father has the mental capacity of a child. I am now my father’s mouthpiece.” No one challenged his assumption of power, even when Warren began arranging marriages between the silver-pompadoured Rulon and disturbingly young wives. But they did worry about his actions privately. According to Utah private investigator Sam Brower’s book Prophet’s Prey, a visiting Canadian FLDS bishop was bold enough to voice his concern to Rulon about the marriages. To his surprise, the baffled Rulon responded, “I don’t know. Ask Warren. Why am I being married to all these young girls?”
Warren’s design became clearer in 2002, when Rulon died and he took over. Two days after his father’s death, he announced to the men, “Hands off my father’s wives!” and in short order began marrying many of them himself.
Anyone in his flock who hadn’t taken him seriously would soon fear his wrath. In 2003, for the first time in decades, Utah authorities began prosecuting FLDS members for bigamy and unlawful sex with their underage wives, and by the end of the year, Jeffs had begun plotting to move to Eldorado, far from the Utah authorities’ prying eyes. (It probably didn’t hurt that, at the time, the age of marital consent with a parent’s permission in Texas was fourteen; after the FLDS arrived, it was raised to sixteen.) There, he said, the most elite members of the group would be rewarded with admittance into the YFZ Ranch, and the faithful would “receive ordinances to bring [them] into the presence of God.” The “unworthy” would remain in Short Creek, a place that would be “rejected and eventually destroyed.” In January 2004 more than twenty men in Short Creek were accused of disobedience, excommunicated, and sent away from their families to “repent from afar,” a decision that mystified the community and uprooted numerous wives and children who were assigned to new men. The message was loud and clear: the slightest hint of disloyalty could result in immediate expulsion.
But while Jeffs was gaining more control of his personal universe of some 10,000 people, the world outside the FLDS had begun closing in. Jeffs’s nephew Brent Jeffs sued him for damages caused by sexual abuse. In August 2004 six young men brought a civil lawsuit against Jeffs, seeking financial compensation for the hardship they had suffered after he excommunicated them. Then, in April 2006, Jeffs was indicted on his first criminal charges: rape as an accomplice for arranging the marriage between a fourteen-year-old girl and her nineteen-year-old cousin. He immediately went on the lam, hiding out in various places, including Eldorado, where he married the twelve-year-old who became his final bride.
He was captured on August 28, 2006, during a routine traffic stop near Las Vegas, after having spent 114 days on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Inside his flashy red 2007 Cadillac Escalade, officers found four computers, sixteen cell phones, more than $55,000 in cash, three wigs, and twelve pairs of sunglasses. While awaiting trial, he attempted suicide by hanging himself and throwing himself against his cell wall. The following year, he was convicted in Utah of two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice, and again he tried to martyr himself, this time via a hunger strike.
Yet his most calamitous turn lay ahead. In late March 2008 a San Angelo domestic abuse hotline began to receive a series of phone calls from someone who identified herself as Sarah Jessop Barlow, a sixteen-year-old girl who claimed she lived on the YFZ Ranch, had an eight-month-old baby, and had suffered abuse at the hands of her husband. Days later, Judge Walther signed a search warrant for Barlow, and while Jeffs sat in jail, Texas authorities launched a high-profile raid on the ranch. The Department of Family and Protective Services, holding interviews in an attempt to find Barlow, became alarmed at the number of YFZ children who mentioned underage marriages, and more than four hundred children were taken into custody. The state soon suffered humiliating reversals of fortune: “Sarah Jessop Barlow” was revealed to be a 33-year-old Colorado woman named Rozita Swinton who had a history of making false reports to the police; a higher court ruled that Walther had improperly kept the YFZ children in state custody; and the children were eventually returned to the FLDS community. But the criminal process was just ramping up. During the search of the ranch, authorities had discovered a cache of damaging evidence that, by summer’s end, resulted in the indictments of twelve men, including Jeffs, who was charged with sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and bigamy.
In the fall of 2010 the Utah Supreme Court, citing faulty jury instructions, overturned Jeffs’s conviction for rape as an accomplice. But this seeming stroke of luck proved short-lived. While Utah officials debated whether to retry the case, Texas, seeing an opportunity, extradited him for trial in Tom Green County. On November 30, authorities escorted Warren Jeffs through the frosty Salt Lake City night to an unmarked plane, which would deliver him, ultimately, to a jail cell in Big Lake, an hour outside Eldorado.
The following morning in Walther’s court, the pale, gangly prisoner wore a gray sweatshirt over an orange jumpsuit. When Walther asked if he had retained counsel, he responded so quietly she asked him to move the microphone closer to his mouth. “I need more time,” he said. Faced with charges more serious than any he had dealt with before, he hardly resembled the charismatic leader many had envisioned, the man who made his 10,000 followers quiver.
Jeffs hasn’t caught a break since. Canadian authorities began digging through the Texas trove of FLDS documents and discovered underage marriages between Jeffs and a few FLDS girls from Canada. He is being investigated for violating the Mann Act. His authority was challenged by another FLDS member, who claimed to be the true president. On July 1, three weeks before his trial was scheduled to begin, his half brother, Wallace Jeffs, whom Warren had excommunicated, filed a lawsuit in Utah claiming that his teenage daughters were at a high risk of being entered into underage marriages.
All of which made it even stranger that Warren had grown so reckless in his defense. One had to wonder if his narcissism had become so ingrained that he believed the doors of the jail would simply swing open and allow him to walk out.
In the ramp-up to the trial, the general consensus in San Angelo was that Warren Jeffs may have relocated his headquarters to Texas, but he wasn’t a Texan. He may have moved hundreds of his followers to nearby Schleicher County, but that didn’t make him a local. The fact that one of the most manipulative criminal masterminds of the decade was scheduled for trial on two sexual assault charges (and a bigamy trial set for the fall) right in the town’s courthouse made few waves. When I asked a man selling electric guitars at the Tarpley Music Company if he was going to follow the Jeffs trial, I had to refresh his memory. “Oh, that guy?” he responded. “Didn’t that all happen a long time ago?”
Eventually, of course, it was all anybody could talk about. With a media onslaught broadcasting the trial’s proceedings on the hour, locals became increasingly fascinated by the crimes that had taken place in their own backyard and the spectacle that resulted. Cars slowed near the television trailers to snap photos of news correspondents. Neighbors began stopping by the courthouse to catch a glimpse of the monster for themselves. “It’s the biggest case we’ll ever see here,” one woman told me.
As the trial date approached, the attorneys’ strategies became clear. During pretrial hearings, defense attorneys floated the issue of religious discrimination. Prosecutors, in turn, directed their attention to the overwhelming evidence. As anyone following the story knew, there were photographs of underage mothers holding new babies, letters from underage wives to their husbands, and letters from followers to Jeffs, as well as Jeffs’s own bizarre dictations going back years. A handful of Jeffs’s wives were dedicated scribes who kept a daily record (known as a “priesthood record”) of his utterances, and their job did not end when he fell asleep. They remained perched by his side all night, ready to record any mutterings. But the most shocking evidence was still to come, much of it filed in the boxes (one of which bore the curious label “hard times underwear”) stacked in the row of seats behind the prosecution.
Five days into the trial, the real work of telling the crime narrative began. Without delving into the history of the FLDS—a dramatic, sprawling story that would be reserved for the punishment phase—the state brought out its star witness, Rebecca Musser, who bedazzled the jury with her intimate, firsthand account of FLDS beliefs. One of Warren’s former stepmothers, Musser is a knockout in her mid-thirties who had been married to Rulon at age nineteen. She walked into the courtroom wearing a red shirt and a tight black skirt, spike heels, and perfect makeup, her long blond-streaked hair ironed flat. She smiled at the jury and introduced herself with the confidence and friendliness of a cruise ship director. The prosecution had to show several old photos of her in prairie dresses to convince the jury she was who she said she was. (Musser left the FLDS soon after Rulon died, when Warren insisted she marry again.)
In the gentlest of all possible voices, Musser methodically explained that it was necessary for FLDS records of families and marriages to be accurate in order to ensure that sect members were allowed access to heaven—a key validation of the prosecution’s evidence. She also explained how, according to FLDS teachings, women can get to heaven only if they are married to a “good priesthood man” for “time and all eternity” and that submitting to one’s husband is the best way to please God. And perhaps because the two young victims at the center of the case never appeared in court, she put a face on their anonymity by describing their bubbly personalities in vivid detail.
If Musser’s testimony built the state’s case, Jeffs’s written words sealed his fate. Because he dictated detailed accounts of his days (in one case, how many pancakes he ate), the content of the prosecution’s story was fully provided; the state merely had to read the priesthood records aloud. That task was left, in large part, to one of the case investigators, Texas Ranger Nick Hanna, a man so ruggedly handsome people joked about the swooning women he left in his wake. As the state projected Jeffs’s own words on a screen, Hanna read them aloud, slowly, for maximum impact.
The tale began in 2003, when Jeffs was looking for property in West Texas. He drove around, waiting for divine inspiration. When the Lord told him to try Sonora, he was stumped. “I scratched my head and said, ‘Sonora? Where is Sonora?’ ” Later, the Lord told him to try the isolated spot of “Eldorado, Eldoraydo, they say it around here.” There, Jeffs instructed his members to quietly settle the YFZ Ranch. “For now, stay out of sight, ladies,” he warned.
As the story unfolded, and Hanna began to recite the passages directly relating to the fifteen-year-old victim of the alleged sexual assault, Jeffs grew agitated and made full-throated objections, all of which Walther overruled. Those in the gallery learned why Jeffs was so anxious when Hanna began to read aloud the scribe’s account of the sexual encounters that occurred in the middle of the night of September 17, 2004.
“I could see a brilliant glow around your face,” the scribe wrote, addressing Jeffs in the second person. “You were in a session.”
“I object!” Jeffs repeated, rising from his chair, though he had already been repeatedly overruled.
As Hanna continued, the nature of the events became clearer. “And then you said [to one of the young girls], ‘Give me a hug.’ You had us turn out the light—”
“Great God of heaven doing this work, derided before an open court. A generation—the justice of God shall be fulfilled upon a generation,” Jeffs said.
“I went to the closet light to turn it off,” Hanna read.
Jeffs continued objecting louder, and Nichols took over the reading of the passage, his face turning red with anger. “She got off you, and you told her to give you a hug.”
“This saith the Lord, ‘Cease!’ ” said Jeffs.
“I felt the heavenly power,” Nichols continued. “You told me to have [the fifteen-year-old] be ready. I said to her, ‘Warren says be ready and come to his room.’ ”
The evidence didn’t end there. After providing references to the fifteen-year-old giving Jeffs “comfort” on other occasions, the state introduced an audiotape. Jeffs continually objected, and was ignored, as an hour-long recording was played on which he is heard instructing a dozen of his wives—including the fifteen-year-old—to have group sex with him. “This is the first time I was able to have a quorum of twelve ladies,” he said on the recording. He asked them to undress and wear special white robes, then instructed them on how to masturbate and assist each other in pleasing him during their next gathering. “Keep this secret,” he told them. The state provided photographs of a white robe from the YFZ Ranch with the fifteen-year-old’s name on it, priesthood records in which Jeffs relates being told that the girl was pregnant, photos of the very young-looking fifteen-year-old and a newborn, and a DNA expert who testified that Jeffs and the girl were the parents. A more convincing argument would have been hard to come by.
With the sexual assault case neatly tied up, Nichols addressed the aggravated sexual assault charge involving the twelve-year-old. Since the foundation for the case had been laid, the presentation didn’t take long. Nichols showed various documents and photographs relating to the marriage with the twelve-year-old, displayed photographs of her looking young and cute, and then, in a very dramatic moment, brought out another damning recording. Jeffs objected throughout as the tension in the room grew palpable. “This is not a matter of interpretation!” Nichols finally said, raising his voice. “This is a tape involving—may I finish, Mr. Jeffs?—this is a recording of a sexual assault of [a twelve-year-old] by Warren Steed Jeffs!”
The jury members put on their earphones, and their already sour looks turned dark as the recording played. Some in the courtroom, hearing it by speaker, began to cry when the young girl replied to Jeffs’s questions in a meek, high voice. Others concentrated, listening for the moment when Jeffs called the girl by her full name. After the recording concluded, the state rested its case. All eyes gravitated to the defendant, sitting motionless at his table.
Nobody thought Jeffs would actually put on a defense. He hadn’t cross-examined any of the state’s witnesses and he didn’t seem to understand basic courtroom protocols and procedures: how to raise an objection, for example, or how to present a motion. “This is not as easy as it appears on TV,” Judge Walther had warned him.
Clearly, she’d made no impression. “In history, recorded on earth,” Jeffs began. One juror stretched, another looked at her nails, another took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. For thirty minutes, Jeffs gave the jury a lesson in his religious beliefs.
By this time, everyone in the courtroom was aware of his penchant for the soliloquy. The real surprise came when he called his first witness, J. D. Roundy, to the stand. The reporters recognized Roundy as the large, sweet-mannered FLDS man with the comb-over who had been sitting with impeccable posture on a hard bench in the hallway for much of the proceedings. (He wasn’t the only FLDS member in the courthouse. A small group of faithful FLDS men, including Jeffs’s brother Lyle, sat in the courtroom occasionally—though, notably, not during any presentations of Jeffs’s misdeeds.)
As it turned out, Jeffs was a quick study, fully capable of questioning a witness, though any possibility that Roundy would help his cause was undermined by Jeffs’s behavior. After gathering a few religious texts and entering them as evidence, Jeffs confronted his loyal follower with what amounted to a Sunday school quiz. “What are the two highest laws?” Jeffs asked. Roundy blinked as innocently as a choirboy, with his head cocked slightly to the left, and responded earnestly, “Holy celestial marriage and holy united order.”
“Are you happy in this religion?” Jeffs asked. “Yes, sir,” Roundy replied.
The interrogation persisted for hours, with Roundy playing the eager student. When Jeffs would interrupt—“The question was . . . ”—Roundy would turn red and become flustered. Bullying, the jury learned firsthand, was Jeffs’s strength. As he continued, some of the questions put Roundy in danger of incriminating himself by way of bigamy statutes, and though the judge warned Roundy to think carefully before answering, he obeyed his leader. Jeffs began to repeat questions about religious persecution and dramatically inject his interrogation with long silences. “This is his filibuster,” one reporter told me.
When it became clear that Jeffs had run out of gas, Judge Walther took one final long pause from him as an opportunity to pass the witness to the prosecution. Nichols’s questions were few. Was Roundy at the YFZ Ranch in 2004 and 2006, when the sexual assaults in question occurred? Had Roundy ever used his religious principles to justify having a group of women come into his room and disrobe? Had he ever asked a group of women to come to him and lie prostrate on the floor before him? Or had sex with a fifteen-year-old? A twelve-year-old? Roundy, looking scared and a little stunned, replied “no” to all the questions.
Roundy, it turned out, was all Jeffs had in his pocket. After Walther asked him if he wished to call any more witnesses, she allowed him one more very long pause before announcing, “Let the record reflect it has been three minutes since the court has instructed the defendant repeatedly to produce a witness. Since there are no more witnesses, the court assumes you rest.”
Nichols’s closing argument was as dispassionate and cerebral as his opening argument had been. Using prepared notes in a three-ring binder to help him stay on track through his thirty minutes of allotted time, he reminded the jury about the evidence they had seen and heard—documents, DNA evidence, audio recordings—and he repeated the state’s penal codes regarding sexual assault. He ended with a genteel “thank you.”
Jeffs stood up to present his response. The jury waited. And waited. Standing behind the defense table with his hands folded before him, he looked at the floor. Since Lyle Jeffs was sitting next to me, I wrote on my pad, “What’s going on?” and nudged him, pointing to my question. He shrugged. Tension faded to boredom, and within fifteen minutes the poker-faced jury began to stare into space. Lyle fell asleep. With only five of his thirty minutes remaining, Jeffs finally raised his head, smiled slightly, looked each juror in the eye, and whispered, “I am at peace.”
During the nearly four hours that the jury took to deliberate, the people in the courtroom grew increasingly nervous. Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, who had arrived in court that morning to support his team, conferred with the prosecution as they paced around the room. A woman who’d attended the Casey Anthony trial in Florida showed up wearing a bright-colored caftan and a fake flower in her hair and sailed past the rows, cheerfully offering Altoids. Retirees introduced themselves to everyone in proximity and brought the newer attendants up to speed. A few people in the room had published books about the FLDS; others were taking careful notes for future manuscripts. Reporters surrounded former FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop, and some of them, after hearing his shocked, disgusted, and mildly contrite statements, walked away rolling their eyes.
When the jury returned, the judge asked Jeffs to rise, then read the verdict: guilty on both counts. Many of the people in the room had been waiting for this moment for years, yet anyone looking for catharsis would have been disappointed. There were no cheers or cries of protest, no high fives or tearful hugs. Judge Walther had warned everyone to stay quiet, and amazingly, everyone obeyed. Even Jeffs, who had been so voluble the day before, barely responded. “He didn’t even clench his teeth,” the woman next to me whispered.
But the drama was hardly over. The punishment phase of the trial immediately followed the verdict, and Texas law allows the state to pull out all the stops. For Jeffs, this was very bad indeed. In addition to the two proven assaults, the prosecution was now set to introduce his other crimes and misconduct, including his 78 illegal marriages (24 of which involved children under the age of 17), the 67 marriages he’d arranged between other men and underage girls, 500 bigamous marriages he’d facilitated, 6 instances of “illegal sexual conduct,” the expulsion of numerous young men, the dismantling of roughly 300 families, and time spent as a fugitive.
No one really blamed Jeffs for wanting to leave the courtroom and allow Deric Walpole to take over. After Jeffs departed and Nichols delivered another calm and collected introduction, Walpole—wearing a new suit that some FLDS women had tailored to his dimensions—stepped up. “Now I get a chance to do my job,” he told the jury. He then explained that Jeffs saw Walpole’s role in biblical terms. “As Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane defended Jesus Christ,” he said, so was he attempting to defend a persecuted religious figure. (I heard someone gasp when he made this comparison, then realized it was me.) The crux of his argument was that Jeffs was a product of his environment. “He can’t escape it,” Walpole said. Locals felt for the defense attorney, even if they didn’t hold any sympathy for the defendant. “He’s doing his job,” one woman told me with a shrug. “He’s done as well as he could.” Still, some observers raised their eyebrows at this depiction of Jeffs as a loyal sheep.
When Walpole was done, the prosecution brought forth a number of former FLDS members, who testified that Jeffs’s practices, in fact, differed significantly from his father’s methods. After taking power from Rulon, Jeffs had clamped down on the FLDS and further isolated it from the world. He’d banned movies, music, social events, television, and Internet usage. He’d manipulated members, kicked out boys for small infractions such as receiving love letters, and exiled men and women for disobeying his orders. Jeffs’s nephew Brent took the stand and said that Jeffs had raped him when he was five years old. A woman who could barely say his name without sobbing testified that Jeffs had molested her when she was seven years old. Audio recordings played in court revealed more orgies with teenage girls.
In the end, the jury learned, the abuse of the fifteen-year-old and the twelve-year-old were just a tiny fraction of Jeffs’s crimes. In addition to the very young children he sexually assaulted, Jeffs took as brides 4 twelve-year-olds, 3 thirteen-year-olds, 4 fourteen-year-olds, 1 fifteen-year-old, and 12 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. “There is a girl . . . the Lord wants me to take,” the priesthood record from January 2004 stated. “She is thirteen. Oh, I just want the Lord’s will. . . . If the world knew what I was doing they would hang me from the highest tree.”
The jury did not take long to come to an agreement. As they took their seats, one juror actually nodded to the gallery before the judge asked Jeffs to stand. Walther read the decision: life in prison. Again, everyone abided by Walther’s orders to maintain decorum, but after Jeffs, smiling calmly, was escorted out of the courtroom, the gallery began to buzz with talk.
Outside, in the 100-degree heat, dozens of people huddled around the exit as Jeffs was taken out in shackles. “Warren, where are your followers?” one man yelled. “Are you still the prophet?” Another attendee suggested that jailhouse retribution was in Jeffs’s future: “Bubba’s waiting!”
The broadcast reporters stood by for the various players to make their statements. Willie Jessop took his turn, with a few local ladies jumping in to ask their own questions. Walpole approached the cluster of cameras and was asked what he would have done differently in the first phase of the trial. “Lots!” he said. “I would have done lots.” The prosecution team, along with several Texas Rangers and witnesses, followed with a joint press interview. “Justice has arrived for Warren Steed Jeffs,” Nichols said, “who we expect to live the rest of his life in prison.” (This prediction nearly took on a different resonance a few weeks later, when Jeffs went on another hunger strike and suffered serious health issues. At press time, authorities expected him to survive.)
When the team began walking back toward the courthouse, a reporter asked Brent Jeffs if he had any comment. At first he seemed hesitant, then he stopped and turned to the cameras. “I can now stand ten feet tall and say, ‘You are where you belong,’ ” he said. One reporter asked if he had a message for those still in the FLDS, reminding everyone, as if anyone needed reminding, that Jeffs’s thousands of loyal followers don’t read the news, watch TV, or surf the Internet. They hear only what Jeffs allows them to hear, and likely have no idea what came out in the trial. “Look around you,” he advised his uncle’s followers. “Look at what has been created.”
An hour later, the cameras were gone, the trial-watchers had said goodbye to each other, and the courthouse lawn had emptied. As I walked to my car, one reporter said, “Well, my friend, I think we were both ringside for a piece of American history.”
Driving out of town, on the way to Eldorado, I passed a church sign that read:
God Bless You
Pray for rain