Son of polygamous cult leader Warren Jeffs speaks out in doc: ‘We were brainwashed’
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Warren Jeffson can vividly recall the moment he briefly stepped out of the Yearning for Zion ranch, which was run by his father, polygamous cult leader Warren Jeffs.
Jeffson was about seven years old when he first saw a highway in Eldorado, Texas. It was his first glimpse into an outside world he had never experienced before.
“I saw cars zooming down the highway — it was crazy,” he recalled to Fox News Digital. “I had never seen anything like that. I was just so enthralled with the idea of going 40 miles an hour. It was like going to another planet.”
Jeffson, along with his mother Vicki Thompson and his sister Sarah, have come forward to share their story about life inside the polygamous denomination in Peacock’s new true-crime documentary, “Preaching Evil: A Wife on the Run with Warren Jeffs.”
It explores how Jeffs rose to power within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) during the ‘90s, and how he was arrested and convicted following accusations of assault, rape and child abuse.
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The four-part series features a sit-down with Naomi Jessop, one of Jeffs’ ex-wives who served as his personal scribe, as well as interviews with the authorities involved in the raid of the compound and the attorneys that later brought Jeffs to justice.
“I think what really compelled me to get our story out there is, unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that get involved in these types of environments and go down a similar path,” Jeffson explained. “We were very sheltered. I didn’t see any outside world perspectives. And when I came out into this world, I wanted to experience all those things, but I really wanted to show people that, after I left, I didn’t have to go down any harmful roads. I found a way to take those negative experiences that I’ve gone through and turn them into a more positive future for me.”
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the mainstream church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it. The FLDS broke away from the Mormon church and was formed so that members could continue practicing plural marriage. It was headquartered on the Utah-Arizona border. Jeffson’s grandfather, Rulon T. Jeffs, took power in 1986 and ruled until his death in 2002 at age 92. He left behind an estimated 75 widows and 65 children.
Following Rulon’s death, Jeffs took over as the group’s prophet. In the FLDS, it is believed the prophet can speak directly to God and direct which male members can enter heaven. The prophet can also perform marriages and assign wives to their husbands. In pleasing the prophet, loyal members are rewarded more wives, who “belong” to their spouses for eternity, NPR reported. Members believed that each man must have at least three wives.
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“I didn’t know any differently,” Jeffson said of his childhood. “You can’t compare the life I had with the life I have now. It’s like I was blindfolded without even knowing I had the blindfold on. It’s all you know. I was happy, to be honest with you. I was never abused physically. Emotionally – that’s another story. We were brainwashed. But … I had a great work ethic. I had a lot of siblings. And, of course, I had a great mom. I lived in a bubble.”
Jeffson said, growing up, he had a good relationship with his father. But once he became the leader of the FLDS, “that relationship was eliminated.” It is believed that Jeffs had about 78 wives and at least 60 children.
“He didn’t spend time with me,” said Jeffson. “I didn’t have an opportunity to bond with him at all. It got to the point where I would only see him once every few months. And when I would see him, it’d be very brief … It just felt like he was passing through.
“As I got a little bit older, he started to write to me a few more times, but we never had a strong relationship. Unfortunately, negative things were usually written. There were some positive things, but it was usually about something I’ve done wrong.”
Jeffson said he would contribute to the workload as Jeffs built what he described as Yearning for Zion. At four years old, he would pick weeds out of the flower beds and work in the gardens. He would clean bathrooms, help make breakfast and ensure the home was tidy at all times.
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“I grew up thinking we were building a haven where we would be the only ones left, and everyone else would be wiped off from the face of the Earth,” said Jeffson.
Even as a child, Jeffson questioned his faith.
“Race was huge in the FLDS,” he said. “We were taught very strongly that Black people were very evil. I remember, at a young age, I had to go off the compound and go to the hospital, which most people didn’t have an opportunity to do. And we were treated extremely well by different people, including some Black people. I began to wonder at that point, ‘Why were they so bad?’ I also wondered why I couldn’t have short sleeves, why there were certain foods I couldn’t eat, like candy. And toys – I wanted toys like any kid. We didn’t have those things.”
In 2006, Jeffs, who was on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List, was arrested during a routine traffic stop near Las Vegas. He was booked on two out-of-state warrants issued in Utah and Arizona on charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and rape as an accomplice.
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“I remember [as a child], that was devastating to me,” said Jeffson. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. Even though I didn’t have a relationship with him, I was still very concerned, and I had a love for him as my father and as the prophet of the church. We were terrified.”
A call suddenly came into the San Angelo domestic abuse hotline. It was from a girl, who said she was 16 years old and living on the Yearning for Zion ranch. Law enforcement entered the property looking for the teen, who identified herself as Sarah. It turned out to be a hoax. The call actually came from a 33-year-old woman living in Colorado Springs.
Still, the details of underage marriage and sexual abuse prompted law enforcement to raid the 1,700-acre property in 2008. The Department of Family and Protective Serves ordered the removal of about 437 children from the ranch, Texas Monthly reported. Jeffson, who was about six or seven at the time, was one of them, along with his sister.
“I remember those Texas rangers and the SWATs coming in with rifles and everything,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to survive. We had been taught that these people wanted to eliminate us. It felt like it only confirmed what Warren Jeffs had taught us.”
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Jeffson said he was separated from his mother for six weeks. He promised the matriarch he would stay with his sister. During what he described as “the six longest weeks of my life,” he and Sarah were at a state shelter. He and Sarah were eventually reunited with their mother.
According to prosecutors, Jeffs engaged in sexual abuse with two girls, ages 12 and 14. The documentary showed how a key piece of evidence against Jeffs was an audio recording of him instructing his “spiritual bride,” as well as several other young women, how to please him sexually. In 2007, Jeffs tried to hang himself in a Utah jail. He was force-fed at an Arizona jail in 2009. Then in 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison. That same year, he was put in a medically-induced coma after fasting in a Texas prison.
Jeffson said, at age 14, he and his family were cut off from FLDS. In 2017, they relocated to New Harmony, Utah, where several former members have embarked on new lives. Jeffson’s mother has remarried. As for Jeffson, he’s engaged and traveling out of the country. After Jeffson filmed his account for the documentary, he changed his last name.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I want to create my own story, my own path. I want to move on.”
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Jeffson said he doesn’t have any relationship with Jeffs, and he’s content with that.
“No matter what he says about us today, he has no control over my life,” said Jeffson. “I’ve found so much love and appreciation out in this world.”
Jeffson is aware his story is different from the many others who either left or were cast out of the FLDS. The group has lost hundreds of members in recent years. In 2017, Jeffs’ brother Lyle was convicted on food stamp fraud charges. Some followers still consider Jeffs to be their prophet and believe he was wrongfully convicted.
“We weren’t crazy,” Jeffson reflected. “He was cunning, very manipulative in the way he made everyone love him so much. And he hid it for so long. There’s no hiding that he is a pedophile and deserves to be in prison. He ruined so many lives. I hope people understand they have the freedom to get out from under his control so that they can live their own lives. People need to be careful and watch out for someone like him, who only had his own interests in mind.”
Peacock’s “Preaching Evil” will premiere on April 26. The Associated Press contributed to this report.