Polygamists as Packrats

What Women Really Think
Nov. 5 2009 12:05 PM

Polygamists as Packrats

What have I learned over the past week watching polygamist Raymond Merril Jessop’s trial in the sleepy west Texas ranching town of Eldorado? Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints save everything . And now, with the first criminal prosecution of an FLDS leader in Texas, this tendency to hoard every little scrap has come back to bite them. In trying to prove Jessop impregnated his 16-year-old "spiritual" wife in November 2004 at the sect’s Yearning for Zion Ranch, the prosecution is relying heavily on documents seized during last year’s raid. And there are a lot of them.

Rebecca Musser, who was married off at 19 to then-83-year-old FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs, was the first former fundamentalist Mormon to take the stand, and spent several hours on Wednesday describing the church’s painstaking record-keeping practices. Musser fled the sect in November 2002, after Rulon died and his son Warren Jeffs tried to force her to marry him. Now in her mid-30s, Musser has shed her braided updo for highlighted locks, and lives in Idaho, where she has worked as a realtor and at a yoga studio. Musser, who testified against Warren Jeffs at his Utah trial, also helped Texas authorities in the aftermath of the raid.

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Musser-also Jessop’s cousin-said that in each FLDS family, the father is tasked with recording all the significant events, including births, baptisms, marriages, and blessings. Those records are handed over to a bishop, who passes them on to the sect’s prophet. For FLDS believers, unless these important events are chronicled as they happen on earth and entered into a "Book of Remembrance," they will not be credited for them in the afterlife, Musser said. "If it’s not recorded on earth, it would not be recorded in heaven," she explained.

The Mormon fundamentalists’ hoarding problem extends beyond religious to the painfully mundane: Among the seized items was a prescription from 1988 that was written out when the victim was four days old.

As prophet, Warren Jeffs must record everything he says or does, Musser said, because he believes he is accountable to God for the counsel he gives people. A peek at Jeffs’ dictations reveals a micromanager who tailors his instructions to his followers down to the smallest detail, from specifying where a certain child should be taken to the doctor to which drapes should be used in the ranch’s temple. In Jessop’s case, the prosecution has focused on a dictation Jeffs gave in 2004 in which he says he told ranch leaders not to seek outside medical care for Jessop’s 16-year-old wife, who had been in difficult labor for three days. "I knew that the girl being 16 years old, if she went to the hospital, they could put Raymond Jessop in jeopardy of prosecution as the government is looking for any reason to come against us there," Jeffs wrote.

The vault inside the YFZ Ranch’s gleaming limestone temple contained hundreds of boxes of these meticulously detailed records and dictations at the time of the raid. During the raid, Texas Rangers drilled through a reinforced concrete wall and breached the vault, seizing everything inside.

Since the victim in this case has been uncooperative, the fruits of the raid-including DNA evidence, Warren Jeffs’ dictations, and other records-have formed the basis of the state’s case. Without this extraordinary amount of paper, prosecutors may never have known that Jessop married six of his nine wives at the YFZ Ranch. Also using this evidence, Child Protective Services was able to conclude that one out of every four girls ages 12 to 17 on the compound was involved in an underage marriage . The Nazis, who eventually amassed 50 million pages detailing their crimes, were also thorough record keepers.

We still don’t know how Raymond’s trial will shake out, and how that outcome will influence the cases of the 11 other FLDS members slated to be tried in Texas over the next two years. But in the aftermath of the raid, I can’t help but wonder if church policies regarding recordkeeping are being tweaked. If you’re going to make a habit of breaking the law, you might do yourself a favor and not write it all down.

Sonia Smith is an associate editor at Texas Monthly.