When I first read the headlines about a 25-year-old wife of imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs escaping—barefoot!—from her life in the abusive polygamist sect, I cheered. None of Jeffs' dozens of wives has ever before been reported to have abandoned her prophet; perhaps, I hoped, this was a sign that the deeply insular community is beginning to open up to the world. But unfortunately, I no longer think that’s quite the case. Rather, this woman’s escape may be part of the internecine battle for control of the FLDS, which has been in crisis—with some members leaving voluntarily and a new self-proclaimed prophet competing with an ailing Jeffs for followers—in the wake of Jeffs’ conviction for sexually abusing two underage wives.
The details on this story are sketchy; the Associated Press reports that it hasn’t even been able to confirm that the 25-year-old woman was one of Jeffs’ wives. One common factor in all of the reports I’ve seen so far: Willie Jessop.
Once, Jessop numbered among Jeffs’ most loyal followers. In the recent book Prophet’s Prey, Sam Brower, who got to know the FLDS community while working as a private investigator, calls Jessop “Willie the Thug” and describes him as “the loudmouth FLDS spokesman, bodyguard, and church enforcer. While Jessop initially stood by Jeffs after his arrest, the once-faithful soldier has recanted his support, calling his one-time spiritual leader “morally indefensible.” He now backs another man who claims to be the true FLDS prophet, and the split has caused trouble in the FLDS home base along the Arizona/Colorado border.
The unnamed wife who escaped apparently fled not to a shelter, but to a business owned by Willie Jessop. A standoff then ensued, leading to intervention by law enforcement. Deputies, apparently called by Jessop then took the woman to a shelter. Jessop told the Spectrum, a St. George, Utah, newspaper, “She came to me under duress for some help. … We've got her help. She's deciding what she wants to do and how we can help facilitate that. One hundred percent of the focus now is on whatever is in her best interests." He repeated that sentiment to the Salt Lake Tribune. His concern for her well-being sounds wonderful. But trusting Jessop might be a mistake.
After the 2008 raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, a Utah sheriff’s office sent their Lonestar State counterparts a guide to the FLDS’s usual suspects; the dossier warned, “If anything remotely resembling violence or intimidation occurs, you can be fairly certain that [Willie Jessop] had a hand in it." In late September, a warrant was issued for Jessop after he failed to appear at a court hearing related to a suit he filed against Brower. After he appeared on Dr. Phil, Salt Lake Tribune polygamy beat reporter Lindsay Whitehurst noted that Jessop’s claim that supporters of underage marriage have been excommunicated from the FLDS seemed misleading, at the least.
Perhaps Jessop was sincere in his desire to help this young woman escape the FLDS. Even if so, though, it’s entirely possible that he will use her—or at least her story—in an attempt to garner favor both with the public and with the faithful still choosing sides in the FLDS schism.