As “Thug Willie,” he defended his prophet with pit-bull ferocity. But by the time we meet in a fourth-floor hallway at the Sandra Day O’Connor federal courthouse, Willie Jessop has changed sides. He’s the star government witness, testifying on behalf of outsiders he once considered his enemies.
He carries himself like a man determined to unburden his conscience even if it means turning against everyone and everything he once believed in.
Burly and middle-aged with a mop of brown hair, Jessop spent more than a decade as security chief and spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous sect that split from the mainstream Mormon church at the turn of the last century. As head of the “God Squad,” he was perhaps the highest profile FLDS member — with the exception of its prophet, Warren Jeffs.
For a while Jeffs occupied the same row as Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Jessop admits on the witness stand that he once helped the fugitive prophet run from authorities. He describes one scheme in which Jeffs dodged a raid on the FLDS meeting house: While others rode out on four-wheelers as decoys, Jeffs and Jessop rode out in another direction on Honda motorcycles packed with cash and fake IDs. They raced up a dry creek bed to the airport.
At the civil trial, expected to go to the jury next week, the government is alleging that the FLDS runs Jessop’s hometown like a theocracy, controlling virtually every aspect of life in Hildale, Utah, and its neighbor, Colorado City, Arizona. The cities and their shared police force discriminate against anyone who isn’t FLDS, attorneys from the Justice Department’s civil rights division contend.
But the cities say the federal government is discriminating against them — and the FLDS — because they practice a religion others don’t like.
Only the cities are on trial; Jeffs and the FLDS are not named as defendants.
Jessop has been on the stand for most of the day when a government prosecutor finally poses the question everybody wants answered: Why did you switch sides?
Spectators lean forward in their seats only to be taken aback by the blunt response:
“Those sons of bitches were raping little girls down in Texas. I knew it and they knew I knew it, and this battle rages on today.”
Under cross-examination by the city’s lawyers, Jessop shoots back, “I’m fully aware that your clients have all taken the Fifth Amendment.” And then he announces his intention to sue them.
Getting the FLDS side of the story is never easy. Church members are strongly discouraged from talking to outsiders and anyone who disobeys could be excommunicated and face losing their homes and families.
Jessop’s split from his church began in 2011 when authorities in Texas slipped him an audiotape of Jeffs sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl in an FLDS temple.
The tape brought Jessop’s world crashing down. He could no longer brush aside the investigations and sex charges as evidence of the government’s religious persecution. He couldn’t heed or protect a spiritual leader he considers a pervert. So he spoke out.
Other church leaders didn’t want to hear it.
These days, Jessop is no longer welcome within FLDS walls. He is considered an “apostate,” someone who turned his back on his prophet and the priesthood. But he sees it differently.
“I didn’t leave the church,” he says. “I believe their conduct left the church. We were creating the perfect storm for Mr. Jeffs to commit this act.”
For Jessop, there was no turning back after FLDS security raided his Hildale excavation business in September 2013 as the town marshals stood by. They tore his offices apart searching for copies of the sex tape and another, older, tape in which, he testified, Jeffs acknowledges that he molested his sisters and is not the true prophet.
Church security hauled out computers, hard drives and filing cabinets. When they moved on to a friend’s house, Jessop says he stayed outside in his truck, with his weapons holstered.
“Why did you just sit there in your truck?” he is asked in court. “Why didn’t you stop it?”
He was afraid of what might happen if anyone saw he was armed.
“They would have killed me,” he replies. “They would have killed me on the spot.”
Ostracized and under attack from his own people, Jessop turned to outsiders. “So now I had to go to the very people I had been demonizing for attacking my religion and ask them for help in protecting my family,” he says on the witness stand. It was “very awkward.”
He’d helped create a rogue prophet, he says, and he believes he must be part of the solution.
“There’s a sense of ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘didn’t I help create it?’ But if we did it innocently, don’t we have a moral obligation to correct it?”
For Jessop, a day in court, a public school and a new basketball court are a start.
‘A society in implosion’
Willie Jessop can be found most days ensconced at a corner table at the Merry Wives Cafe on the main highway leading into his hometown of Hildale. The spot is a favorite among the apostate set. Nobody FLDS would dream of setting foot in the place.
It’s a few days after his turn on the witness stand, and Jessop has agreed to give a tour of the two FLDS towns at the center of the federal case. Together, they make up Short Creek, where people practicing plural marriage first sought refuge more than a century ago.
Locals call the area “The Crick” and refer to themselves as “Crickers.”
More than a dozen years have passed since stories about child brides and a fugitive polygamist prophet brought news trucks rumbling onto The Crick’s dusty, rutted streets to capture images of boys riding off on horseback and women and girls in prairie dresses.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas jail; he was convicted in August 2011 of sexually assaulting two girls he considered “spiritual wives.” One was the 12-year-old on the tape Jessop was given. He says she is his niece, and is still in the FLDS.
Jessop climbs into his oversized black Chevy pickup, pulls out of the cafe parking lot and heads down Utah Avenue.
“What you see is a society in implosion,” he says. Families are splintered and scattered. Businesses are shutting down. And walls are going up.
A decade has passed since the prophet performed Short Creek’s last weddings, he notes.
“We have people here who are 30 years old and aren’t married. They haven’t even gone out on a date. How sad is that?”
But the FLDS has found a way to keep the next generation coming. A select group of particularly pious men, called Seed Bearers, are tasked with impregnating the women of Short Creek.
With 20/20 hindsight, Jessop says, it’s easy to see how “this mess” unfolded.
“It wasn’t overnight. It was over years and years of indoctrination, loyalty training and the idea that you can only be married by what God sanctions through the prophet.”
Now some who have left the FLDS question their own marriages.
“People feel betrayed that their marriage was based on a fraud,” Jessop says. “Here is somebody who says he speaks for God, and you find out he didn’t. How do you deal with that?”
Many people leave with a heavy feeling of betrayal, Jessop says. “They’re asking, ‘Why did God let this guy do this to us? We trusted God.’ Well, no we didn’t. We trusted Warren.”
Over the years, as men left or were driven off, women and children routinely were shuffled around.
“They’ve lost their identity; Warren Jeffs took away even their identity,” Jessop says. “Do you go by your mother’s name, your father’s name, your church name? Who are you?”
Jessop won’t discuss his own family or say how many wives or children he has. He does say he gave his wives a choice when he left the FLDS, and that all of them followed him out.
He says he continues to practice his faith but insists he no longer heeds or defends Warren Jeffs.
As Jessop drives, it’s hard to miss the jaw-dropping beauty of the mountains and red-rock cliffs in the distance. But up close, an anxious, eerie emptiness has Short Creek in its hold. It seems like everybody is waiting for something big.
A flood, and a raid
Surveillance cameras perch on rooftops of businesses — many now shuttered — and atop the walls surrounding the block-square Jeffs compound where the prophet once received his revelations. The walls are posted with “No Trespassing” signs.
Another imposing wall recently went up around the Leroy S. Johnson meeting house, Jessop says. And there are new walls around the church-run bishop’s storehouses, where faithful FLDS members pick up food, clothes and other staples.
As the civil trial continued, Short Creek was rocked this week by federal criminal indictments and raids. Church leaders, including two of Jeffs’ brothers, are among 11 FLDS members charged in a two-count indictment alleging food-stamp fraud and conspiracy to launder money. Lyle Jeffs, who has run the daily affairs of the FLDS while his prophet brother is in prison, was taken into custody in Salt Lake City. Seth Jeffs was arrested at the FLDS compound near Pringle, South Dakota.
“This indictment is not about religion,” said U.S. Attorney John Huber in Salt Lake. “This indictment is about fraud.” Lyle Jeffs pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday. His attorneys had no comment as they left the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. A detention hearing is scheduled for March 7, and the government wants to keep him behind bars as he awaits trial.
Many FLDS families receive public assistance and millions of dollars flow into Short Creek each year, federal prosecutors say. The charges stem from the church’s practice of collecting and pooling goods from FLDS members at the bishop’s storehouse, then redistributing them. Members of the elite United Order, considered to be the most pious, get the best of the communal supplies.
United Order members also live in the biggest houses.
During CNN’s visit, young girls in pastel-colored prairie dresses jump up and down in the bed of a white pickup parked in the driveway of a big house. Elsewhere, men in shirts tightly buttoned at the neck and wrists build fences; women with tightly braided hair and skirts to their ankles rake yards and sweep sidewalks.
It isn’t difficult to see who heeds the prophet here. FLDS homes have large, lettered “Zion” signs hanging over their doors. FLDS homes have fences.
But this is a city with little infrastructure. There are no curbs, no storm drains.
In September, a flash flood from a fluke storm carried off two vehicles with three FLDS sisters and their children inside. The women and nine children drowned; three survived. A 6-year-old boy remains missing.
For a moment, religious tensions were forgotten as FLDS members, apostates and outsiders searched side by side for survivors.
A memorial was held at a city park near the place where they were swept away. Some of the dead and missing were Jessops. Cousins, Willie Jessop says.
But they might as well have lived in another world.
‘Time for a reset’
Like many new apostates, Jessop says he isn’t leaving The Crick. And these days, it’s harder for the FLDS to run people out of town. In 2006, the state of Utah took control of the trust that controls FLDS property in Short Creek. So it is now possible for apostates to get their old houses back. All they have to do is prove they put sweat equity into the place and make sure the taxes and occupancy fees are paid.
“I don’t have to forfeit my town, I don’t need to forfeit my relationship with my Heavenly Father, I just have to have some time to do a moral reset, a spiritual reset, a financial reset, a friendship reset,” Jessop says, quickly adding, “And give everyone else the time to do that.”
Testifying on behalf of the government at the trial in Phoenix is part of Jessop’s moral reset, and it is strange to watch the holder of so many secrets spill them at last in a public courtroom.
It is even stranger to see Short Creek’s civic and church leaders refuse to testify, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. That means the inside view of life in the FLDS comes from those who left it.
Jessop and other witnesses have testified that church leaders — and especially the prophet — decide who will serve in City Hall and on the water and utilities boards, which young men will attend the police academy and go on to work on the shared local police force, the Colorado City Marshal’s Office. They say the church also decides who will receive water hookups and other services — and who will be ignored or evicted.
Former FLDS members also have described a place where the church controls where members live, what they wear and eat, whom they marry and who is family. If a man displeases his prophet or church elders, he faces banishment and is told to “repent from afar.” His wives and children are reassigned to others.
The feds say the cities routinely discriminate against non-FLDS members, which is vehemently denied by the few city leaders who have testified; most have invoked not only the Fifth Amendment but also their First Amendment right to practice their religion without government interference.
David Darger, the Colorado City manager, pushed back on the stand, accusing the government of having a political agenda and trampling on his rights as an American.
A police officer mentioned by others as also being a member of FLDS church security testifies he left the church a while ago but has stayed on the force. He denies he was ever involved in church security, or that FLDS members get favored treatment from police.
“I run just as fast for non-FLDS as FLDS,” said Daniel Musser of the Colorado City Marshal’s department.
If the Justice Department prevails and is able to prove the FLDS church and its rogue prophet corrupted the city governments in Short Creek, they could be decertified and placed into receivership. That means outsiders would run Hildale and Colorado City, and sheriff’s deputies from Washington and Mohave counties would keep the peace.
“We’ve got to get some adult supervision up here,” Jessop says. “Our police department isn’t interested in the civic well-being of anything.”
‘I’ll be lifted up’
The prophet sees big changes coming to Short Creek, too. He is said to have had another revelation: The Lord is coming to “raise up” the faithful in April.
Jeffs made the same prediction at the end of 1999, when members of his inner circle were told to report to Short Creek’s community garden to be “raised up” to heaven. When the Lord was a no-show, Jeffs said his followers hadn’t proven themselves worthy. Now, the prophet reportedly has explained that he got the math wrong, that he overlooked a 16-year difference between God’s calendar and man’s.
Although Jessop dismisses talk of Jeffs’ end times revelations as nonsense circulated by FLDS enemies, others insist that he made them.
Sam Brower, a private investigator and author who has helped people leave the church, says a client is trying to persuade his children to abandon the sect. But his teenage son won’t go.
“The son, who’s about 17, is begging his dad, ‘Don’t take me. Don’t take me back. I have to stay in because they’re going to make me a priesthood holder,'” Brower says. “‘And if I’m a priesthood holder, I’ll be lifted up.'”
Brower, author of The New York Times best-seller “Prophet’s Prey,” is convinced the talk of the prophet’s end times revelation is “better than a rumor.” He notes that April 6 is an important date in Mormon history, and in the history of the FLDS. So important that the massive white temple at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas opened on April 6.
Is the big thing everybody in Short Creek seems to waiting for an intervention from the federal government — or God?
‘Answer them nothing’
Jessop sued the FLDS and the Jeffs brothers over the illegal raid that cost him his business. He also alleged that his family was harassed by others using the same tactics he once employed to purge Short Creek of undesirables. I’ve heard the stories about FLDS boys tossing rocks at strangers and apostates and wonder if that explains the huge crack across Jessop’s windshield. He won’t say.
When church leaders fell back on the standard FLDS legal tactic — “answer them nothing” — Jessop won a default judgment upward of $30 million.
He began buying FLDS properties at auction, at a deep discount negotiated with the United Effort Plan, the trust that oversees church holdings in Short Creek; the UEP has been in state receivership since 2006. His acquisitions included the old school building, the bishop’s storehouse across the street and a massive walled compound that church members built for Jeffs after he had a revelation that he would be freed from prison by the end of 2010 if they built him a new house. Jessop sold the school and storehouse properties back to the county, which built a gym with a competition-sized basketball court in the storehouse. He opened a hotel — The America’s Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast — in the compound Jeffs ordered built but never lived in.
A billboard along the only highway leading into Hildale advertises the “luxury” hotel, but it is empty on the day Jessop shows it off. Even though the building is newer, the décor invokes the 1980s. Inside, the rooms and corridors are decorated with a thick, ice-blue carpet that Jeffs ordered. It wouldn’t have been Jessop’s choice, but it’s quality carpet, so he doesn’t want to waste it.
Jessop also asked the county to help tear down the high concrete walls surrounding the school and gym, opening them up to everyone. He talked the county into sending in teachers because no one in Hildale or Colorado City had teaching credentials.
Now, for the first time in a generation, there’s a public school, with more than 300 students, and kids from other schools are coming into Hildale on buses for league basketball and volleyball games.
Through the school, basketball and courtroom testimony, Jessop is seeking to redeem himself.
“All of our focus was on protecting Warren, protecting him legally, physically, financially — any way we could find to protect him,” Jessop says. “And he was using that to be a terrible monster.”
A debt has come due, as Jessop sees it.
“I owe it to every child I can find to get them in school,” he says. “I owe every mother that needs help. I owe her that. And every father that’s trying to find his kids, I owe him that.”
‘These kids have had the rug pulled out’
Not long after the walls came down, Jessop says he insisted that the mass baptismal font in the school lobby had to go. It gave him the creeps.
Where kids line up for recess, adults once stood and waited to turn their earthly possessions over to the FLDS for “consecration.” They were grilled, answering questions designed to test their loyalty and obedience. If deemed worthy, they were re-baptized en masse. And then they were sent across the street to the bishop’s storehouse to collect whatever possessions church leaders decided they deserved.
In 2010, the faithful were divided into two castes: An elite group of the most pious and obedient men and their families emerged at the United Order. They lived in the biggest homes and shopped in a fancier storehouse. The ones deemed less worthy lived in shacks and trailers and their storehouse rations were comparatively paltry.
Jessop shudders, damning the storehouse ritual as “sick.” He says it was designed to keep followers dependent on their church — and obedient.
The place where some people lost everything six years ago has become a place of aspiration and a symbol of Short Creek’s future.
For now, it’s just another noisy school hallway lined with lockers and cheery balloons and posters. Everything about Water Canyon School seems so normal, and that is what makes it truly remarkable. Because nothing about what happened here before comes close to being what most people would consider “normal.”
Alvin Barlow, a member of the old school board, remembers when 1,500 children went to public school in Short Creek. But as soon as Warren Jeffs ascended as prophet in 2002, he ordered all FLDS children home-schooled.
Barlow says the FLDS gave families a choice: Did they want to go to heaven or hell? Sending kids to public school was seen as a one-way ticket to hell.
And so, what then was known as Phelps Elementary School closed its doors.
According to those who have left the FLDS, Short Creek became a joyless theocracy where children grew up without Christmas, toys, games or pets. They were told that the world beyond The Crick was scary and brimming with evil.
Jessop realizes now that a lot of evil came from within the FLDS. In fact, he says, it came from the top. Teen-age boys were cast out so church elders could get their pick of young brides. And girls as young as 12 were forced into polygamous unions with older men.
That’s why opening a public school for the first time in more than a dozen years is such a big deal. Growing by leaps and bounds as it completes its second year, the school is both an oasis and a microcosm of the changes sweeping across Short Creek.
Lolene Gifford, a reading specialist, says she jumped at the chance to teach again in Short Creek after so many years. She said introducing traumatized and culturally isolated children to the classroom has been one of the toughest, and most rewarding, challenges of her career.
“These kids have had the rug pulled out from under them numerous ways,” Gifford says. They’ve been — I hate to say this, but I’m going to — they’ve been lied to by the adults in their lives. They’ve had their home life shattered, they’ve been taken away — some of them — from their moms, their dads, their biological parents, and reassigned to other parents or relatives.”
There are educational challenges, too. Kids tell her they’ve never read novels. They say they’ve been taught at home that man never walked on the moon. They believe it was a media hoax.
Some of the children are angry. Some feel betrayed and don’t trust adults, she says. But almost all of them are enjoying their new adventure.
“They want to try everything that they were denied for so long.”
One look around the playground shows that this is very much a place in transition. A little girl in a prairie dress holds a limp rope in her hands and watches a laughing group of girls skipping over their ropes. These girls are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and they are having a ball as the newcomer tries to figure out a skill most people don’t remember having to learn.
A boy wearing a dark suit, crisp white shirt and tie, chases a ball. Across the street, a row of FLDS home-schooled children sit atop a high wall, watching the others play.
The line between believers and nonbelievers is clearly drawn. And perhaps never before has being a nonbeliever looked so good to the children of Hildale.
“Now,” says teacher Gifford, “they’re realizing that we are friends, that we have their best interests at heart. We really care about them, and we’re not disrespectful of the culture they’ve had.”
‘Sound of Silence’
When somebody changes sides as completely as Willie Jessop does, others are bound to suspect his motives. It goes with the territory, and Short Creek is a place where the truth can be slippery.
Jessop is a talker. But when he doesn’t want to answer a question, he has a habit of sliding the conversation in another direction, in the slick manner of a seasoned politician. He says he has no political ambition and just wants to hang out at his ranch outside town and “chase cows.”
Some people who have known Jessop for a long time think he is just working his latest angle, playing the feds against the FLDS for his own advantage.
The fact he is buying up large parcels of land around Short Creek has raised eyebrows. Others fighting to get their homes and businesses back are still tied up in red tape.
Brower, the private investigator who has helped so many escape the FLDS, warns against painting too rosy a picture of Jessop. He hurt many people during his “Thug Willie” days, and not everyone is willing to forgive and forget, Brower says. For them, Jessop’s motives always will be suspect.
“I think we all look for some kind of redemption,” the private detective says. “I believe Willie is looking for some type of redemption, but I also believe Willie is very self-absorbed. I hope some day that I’m proven wrong and he does have a real change of heart.”
Others are more blunt.
“Willie Jessop is a modern-day carpetbagger,” says Ron Rohbock, who preceded him as the FLDS church security chief. Rohbock was the first man Warren Jeffs cast out of the FLDS when he became prophet.
The house Rohbock built with his own hands was taken from him, and his seven wives and 50 children were turned over to other men.
He is back to reclaim the big house he built, but he plans to sell it someday and move on with his wife, Geri, a marriage and family counselor from Las Vegas. So far, Rohbock has kept a low profile, except for the ticket he got last year for blaring forbidden Christmas music. It was Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” as he recalls.
“We’ve gone through a lot in the past 2½ years,” he says. “These people have swept so much under the carpet. They did everything in the name of God.”
At the end of two days in Short Creek, I’m not sure what to make of Willie Jessop — or anybody else. He tells a compelling story, and he seems sincere, which makes him all the more dangerous in the eyes of his many critics.
He was an enthusiastic tour guide, but he appeared to hold back when CNN’s cameras were rolling. He was self-conscious, measuring every word.
Seated on a chair in the center of a conference room at America’s Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast, watching the crew pack up, he seemed to be winding down, until he reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
“Want me to ruin a song for you?” he asks. “Listen to this.”
He starts to play Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.”
“What do you think of this in light of Warren Jeffs?”
Suddenly, every lyric has meaning. Could Jessop’s eyes be misting up just a little?
“Hello darkness, my old friend I’ve come to talk with you again
Jessop repeats each line for emphasis.
“And in the naked light I saw Ten thousand people maybe more …”
Warren Jeffs is said to have 10,000 followers, he points out.
“Fools, said I, you do not know Silence like a cancer grows Hear my words that I might teach you Take my arms that I might reach you But my words like silent raindrops fell And echoed in the sounds of silence.”
“All those people who tried to help,” he says, shaking his head.
“And the people bowed and prayed To the neon god they made …
“To a neon god they made,” he says. “That’s sick. Warren Jeffs was arrested in Las Vegas.”
The words of the prophet are written on the subway walls And tenement halls And whispered in the sound of silence.”
“The sounds of silence,” Jessop says. “Do you get it? We should have known he was a perv. Didn’t see it. How do you miss this? It was written on the subway walls. But the silence like a cancer grew.”
Later on, Jessop seems to finally let his guard down.
“I’m just so ashamed by all of this,” he says.
It was perhaps the most unfiltered moment of our time together in Short Creek, where he wasn’t sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.