Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and abuse against children.Deep in the woods of the San Juan National Forest, just 10 miles north of Mancos, is one of the most beautiful areas in southwest Colorado. The densely wooded forest of tall pines, breathtaking view of the mountains, and quiet wilderness is a respite for anyone looking to get away from prying eyes and noise.
It is here, hidden above Joe Moore Reservoir, off Forest Service Road 559, where a group of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints live their day to day lives in total isolation on a 180-acre property. The FLDS is an off shoot of the LDS faith that clings to the early teachings of Joseph Smith that plural marriage, or polygamy, brings about the highest form of salvation. While Smith publicly denounced polygamy, he secretly had up to 40 wives including a 14-year-old. The practice of plural marriage was banned from the mainstream church in 1890, but a group of followers who still believed in the practice broke off and formed the FLDS.
For 16 years, Tom Vaughan, the former editor of the Mancos Times, has observed the FLDS compound just north of Mancos. About 10 or 12 years ago, he got his wife, Sandy Feutz, on board, too.
The two currently live in Silver City, New Mexico, but they swing by the property every time they visit Mancos but maintain a respectful distance remain only on public land during their observations. They post updates on a Facebook page, Mancos FLDS, and stay up on their research on the FLDS church. It’s clear the two are a wealth of knowledge and are passionate about the subject.
“I have found that my reaction to polygamy has changed,” Vaughan said. “My first reaction was, ‘This is terrible and no one does this.’ But in fact, people all over the world do it. But when you link that with the patriarchy and the personal power hunger that Warren Jeffs had, there’s this idea of ownership of ‘I own you and I can take your wife and kids away.’”
“I think the abuse of people by those that hold power over them, wherever that comes from, I detest,” Feutz said.
While the residents of the Mancos FLDS compound seem to keep to themselves and there are no obvious signs of trouble, the group’s ties to fundamentalist beliefs are concerning at best. Many men, women, boys, and girls have escaped from those communities with claims of incest, pedophilia, and horrific abuse. At the Mancos compound, there are rarely signs of life, as the windows are sealed and few seem to wander outside, especially not women and children, Vaughan and Feutz said. Most alarming, however, is the compound’s affiliation with Warren Jeffs, a sexual predator and leader in the fundamentalist church serving a lifetime prison sentence.
In 2003 and 2004, David Steed Allred, one of Jeffs’ son-in-laws, purchased two 60-acre properties at a cost of nearly $1.4 million. In 2014, the FLDS bought another 60 acres adjacent to the property.
When the news hit the press, it spread quickly. The small mountain town of 1,300 residents was flooded with reporters and camera crews looking for the story.
“It started hitting the news, and I was the editor of the Mancos Times at the time,” Vaughan said. “Camera crews accosted people outside the bakery. ... If you know anything about Mancos, you know it’s very live and let live. It gave Mancos a notoriety we didn’t really need.”
Predatory preacher Jeffs was born in 1955 to Merilyn Steed and Rulon Jeffs, aka Uncle Rulon, who was president of the FLDS community called Short Creek, which is based in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. When Rulon died in 2002, it was rumored that he had anywhere from 19 to 75 wives. Warren took over the group after his father’s death and married all but two of his father’s wives within a week.
Warren ruled the church with an iron fist, demanding unquestioning obedience from his followers. He expelled the men and boys from the church that he deemed as threats, forced young girls to marry him and other much older men, and sexually abused children — both boys and girls — including his own.
After being on authorities’ watch list for years, Warren was finally arrested in 2006 and charged. He was sentenced to prison after prosecutors used DNA evidence to prove he impregnated a 15-year-old girl. An audio recording of him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old was played for the courtroom, as were tapes in which Warren instructed young women and girls on how to sexually pleasure him, according to a 2011 article by the Arizona Republic. He equated that by pleasing him they were pleasing God.
“A lot of people may ask, why would someone record sex? ... This individual considers himself to be the prophet,” a prosecutor said during the trial. “Everything he did, hour after hour, he was required to keep a record of that.”
A jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for just three and a half hours before finding the cult leader and rampant pedophile guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2038.
“I am at peace,” was all he had to say at his conviction.
Despite being behind bars, the repercussions of Warren’s sick reign of terror reverberates beyond the walls of his prison. In June 2019, family members reported that Roy Jeffs, Warren’s son, died by suicide, according to Arizona Central. Roy was sexually and psychologically abused by Warren throughout his childhood.
“If I think about it too hard, think about everything that has happened, it just breaks me down real bad,” he told the AP in 2015.
Roy spent his life trying to help other family members to break ties from the FLDS. Roy’s mother stayed with the church, which was especially painful for him, Roy’s brother, Raymond, said.
“He never quit trying to have his voice heard, to make everyone realize what abuse father had done to him, to his family to everyone,” Raymond said after Roy’s death.
Roy was just 26 years old when he died.
According to family members, Warren still maintains control over the FLDS church and the group is still on authorities radar.
In October 2016, the Cortez Journal published an article about the FBI’s search for Lyle Jeffs, the brother of Warren. Lyle was arrested in February 2016 along with 10 other fundamental polygamists for involvement in a $12 million tax fraud scheme. Those involved were high-ranking FLDS members who pressured other FLDS members to turn over the food they purchased with SNAP debit cards to the church, or to swipe the cards at two church-controlled groceries so the benefits could be converted to cash, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The scheme came at the expense of families within the cult, who didn’t have any other access to food.
Despite Lyle being a flight risk, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart released him on house arrest in Salt Lake County, Utah. A few days later, Lyle disappeared, his ankle monitor found covered in olive oil.
Authorities believed Lyle probably went into hiding at one of the group’s “houses of hiding” – the Mancos compound being among them.
A year after he disappeared, Lyle was caught in Yankton, South Dakota, and was sentenced to nearly five years in prison.
It is for these reasons Vaughan and Feutz remain vigilant in their observations.
“I think this (the FLDS) is a racket. I think it’s an organized criminal enterprise and that’s been the reason for intruding the privacy,” Vaughan. “I think the whole thing is a racket – the whole idea is that it’s organized for using and abusing laws for the benefit of primarily Warren Jeffs and his cronies.”
Lyle’s defense team claimed members giving over their benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was the same as if people of different faiths brings food to a church potluck, but U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart saw things differently.
“His conduct has shown that Mr. [Lyle] Jeffs has shown no respect for the laws of the United States, and will place the dictates of his faith above everything else,” he said.
Modern MormonismSince its banning of plural marriage in 1890, the LDS church has slowly evolved, turning from early ideologies such as not allowing Black people to be ordained to the priesthood or enter LDS temples, creating an Indian Placement program where Native children were assimilated into Mormon culture, and opposing same-sex marriage. Arguably, it’s a long cry from the days when Smith preached that Native Americans, or Lamanites as he called them, were cursed with brown skin for being wicked.
The mainstream LDS church has wholly rejected the practices of the FLDS, even going as far as to not claim them as their own. (The feelings between the two groups is mutual.) However, like it or not, fundamentalist theology clings much closer to the early teachings of Smith and Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS — which are misogynistic, racist, and violent — than it does the mainstream LDS. It’s not an issue isolated to just Mormonism, though. All religions – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam – have their dark roots, teachings, and histories that are often brushed aside. In many instances, there is a refusal to face the darkness within.
As Jon Krakauer put it in his book, “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith”:
“There is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied. As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane, there may be no more potent force than religion. When the subject of religiously inspired bloodshed comes up, many Americans immediately think of Islamic fundamentalism, which is to be expected in the wake of 911. But men have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since mankind began believing in deities, and extremists exist within all religions. Muhammad is not the only prophet whose words have been used to sanction barbarism; history has not lacked for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and even Buddhists who have been motivated by scripture to butcher innocents. Plenty of these religious extremist have been homegrown, corn-fed Americans.”
Yet, where there is darkness, there is also light.
Carolyn Jessop fled the FLDS community when she was 35 years old and wrote the book “Escape” regarding her experiences. Jessop grew up in the FLDS church and planned to study medicine. However, she was instead forced to become one of several wives to 50-year-old Merril Jessop. She was just 18 years old at the time. Carolyn stated that in exchange for better treatment, she regularly had to have unwanted sex with Merril, also known as rape.
“Women in the polygamist culture are looked at as property, as a piece of meat,” she told the New York Times in 2005. “We’re not looked upon as human beings with rights. The women are basically baby-producers. It’s a difficult thing to break away from. You don’t contest it.”
She had eight children with her husband but her last pregnancy became life threatening. Eventually, she escaped in the middle of the night with her children in tow and, in 2003, she made history by becoming the first woman who escaped the FLDS who was granted full custody of her children after she sued for custody.
Other individuals fighting back are the Creekers Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in Hildale that supports those escaping from the FLDS. The group was started by Leona Bateman, a former FLDS member whose 15-year-old-son, Rann Dee, was kicked out of the group for dating a girl in the church. Eventually, she and her husband left the faith, only to find that her son had turned to drugs after he was dumped on the street. Three years after they reunited with their son, Rann Dee died by suicide.
“Basically, everything I have created with this organization is things that have been taken away from us,” she told GoSanAngelo in 2018. “I want people to know the importance of transition and having compassion for each other when they’re going through it. ... When they fall now, we try to catch them. Before, there was no one to catch them.”