Inside the Investigation that Brought Down Warren Jeffs

Book review: Prophet’s Preyby Sam Brower (Amazon / Book Depository)

Private investigator Sam Brower found something unusual in Ross Chatwin, a former member of the the insular Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Chatwin’s case, and Brower’s investigation into the religious sect that had excommunicated him, piqued his curiosity like no other investigation had. The FLDS is a fundamentalist Mormon offshoot with near-cultlike operations, run by hideous pedophile supervillain Warren Jeffs in Short Creek, their longtime settlement straddling the Arizona-Utah border. The group split from mainstream Mormonism due to their insistence on polygamy, which they practice with voracious enthusiasm.

Brower, himself a Mormon, met Chatwin after the latter was targeted by the “Crick” community for committing the egregious slight of choosing his second wife without Jeffs’ prophetic decision. He was subsequently exiled and harassed by the “God Squad,” the church’s version of Mafia-like thugs (I know this is serious, but it’s also so funny considering Brower’s description of how they dress.) Chatwin’s offense was at least identifiable; others have been excommunicated for no discernible reason other than Jeffs’ impulse. The FLDS uses Scientology-esque intimidation tactics, threats, and isolation or separation from family and the only community most have ever known to keep its members in line.

A hellish spiral begins as Brower uncovers more of the FLDS’ reprehensible practices. His investigation is what helped land Jeffs in prison with a life sentence, ending his three-decade “reign of terror,” sort of (he still controls his 10,000-odd followers from behind bars). Before his apprehension he went on the lam with his favorite wife, both dressed in the secular, non-prairie-style clothing their followers aren’t allowed to wear and visiting New Orleans, part of the sinful “gentile” world that he’d preached so vehemently against. He was one of the FBI’s Most Wanted at the time of his arrest. It’s good to have this ending in mind while reading, because learning more about the details makes you queasy.

It’s well known that FLDS men take wives as young as 12, with fathers offering daughters in “marriage” as barter for status and power maneuverings. Or so they can be rewarded with young wives themselves. The entire community is shaped by this power structure, with self-proclaimed prophet Jeffs at its head. Brower describes him as lacking any personality traits that “could be considered remotely charismatic” but exuding a near-mystical power over his followers nevertheless.

Total submission to one’s husband and rape are par for the course in the community, and girls and women essentially serve as baby machines. Children serve as free labor, with construction being the biggest business for Short Creek’s livelihood. They can make cheaper offers than competitor contractors thanks to their abundance of free child workers, also helpfully bypassing minimum wage and tax laws.

Brower’s account of the extent and nature of abuses doesn’t shy from confronting details, and it’s stomach-turning. Jeffs’ daughter Rachel recently released her memoir, Breaking Free, detailing her life before escaping, including harrowing abuse by her father. It was sickening, but I thought had prepared me for understanding more about the church’s goings-on. But really, nothing can prepare you for all this.

The sect’s practices are likened to the Mafia, including in Jon Krakauer‘s preface, and it’s an apt comparison. What’s excellent about the book is Brower’s comprehensiveness. His background as a PI means that he’s used to gathering as much data and detail as possible to make a case legally, and he includes such information to great effect, detailing the ins and outs of the group’s operations – ideologically, historically, logistically, and economically. Krakauer makes a guest appearance in the investigation itself, having remained intrigued with the FLDS long after writing his account of murders linked to the group in Under the Banner of Heaven.

The religious aspect of all this in connection to federal law surprised me most, as apparently it’s been a sticking point for the government in punishing and prosecuting FLDS abuses. Brower summarizes it well:

I have often pondered how the public would react if the same sort of ritualistic crimes that I have investigated within the FLDS had instead centered on a congregation of Satan worshippers. The only difference is that Satan worshippers know without a doubt that they are going to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if they get caught raping a virgin. If the FLDS crimes had been put in proper perspective, outraged citizens and lawmakers would have demanded action years ago.

Durr-faced Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson recently had some old comments surface about Warren Jeffs not actually being too bad, because after all, he married those underage girls, he didn’t just snatch them from a bus stop like your average pedophile! This is the book to read to really understand what a ridiculous, insulting statement that is. The writing isn’t extraordinary, but it’s clear and well-organized, especially considering how much information it packs in.

Page-turning if horrifying, deeply important look at a group that’s long gotten away with atrocious abuses under the guise of religious freedom.

Prophet’s Prey:
My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints

by Sam Brower
published 2011 by Bloomsbury

Amazon / Book Depository

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13 thoughts on “Inside the Investigation that Brought Down Warren Jeffs

  1. Even if the writing’s so-so, this sounds compelling and packed with detail. It’s terrible and shameful that the sect’s been able to avoid prosecution in court by wrapping up patriarchal abuse in Christianity – were this any other religion, it seems like it’d rightly be decried as grotesque violence by the media and public.

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    1. Absolutely – this was one that I was fine with reading just to be informed as opposed to being impressed with the craft of the writing. This stuff goes on there still, some things a bit less since Jeffs was especially awful himself, but much of their operations are maintained despite his imprisonment. Federal prosecutors seem to cringe when it comes to anything that might smack of infringing on religious freedom, but when it’s this reprehensible, it’s hard to believe it’s allowed to continue in any form.

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  2. I didn’t realize that Under the Banner of Heaven was about this particular group. For some reason, I assumed it was about religious extremism in general. I have Under the Banner of Heaven on my Kindle, so I think I’ll get to it quicker now! I tend to enjoy Krakauer’s writing, though Missoula made me physically ill and upset for days and days.

    Did the book talk about how the FBI knew they wanted Warren Jeffs? I was under the impression everyone in this group was so secretive that no one outside knew much about what was going on.

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    1. Under the Banner of Heaven is such a fantastic read! Definitely bump that one up your list. It’s about murders within a family that happened in, if I remember it correctly, another fringey offshoot of this group that’s related to the FLDS and mainstream Mormonism but not Jeffs’ group specifically. Krakauer covers something of both of the groups’ histories though. It was fascinating.

      I just recently got Missoula after waffling about it for awhile. I love his writing and the way he explores a story and says something about bigger issues through smaller, specific narratives, but I know it’s going to be upsetting. I’m sorry to hear it had such an effect on you, I’m not looking forward to that either…but I think it’s worthwhile to know the stories, especially since so many people still prefer to brush aside or discredit survivors’ experiences.

      This one does cover how the investigation into Jeffs got to the FBI, and you’re right, the group was incredibly secretive – like I said, it struck me as very cult-like – but the author was instrumental in bringing a lot about Jeffs’ abuses to light and securing evidence to get him convicted. It’s also very tough to read about, considering the kind of abuse that went on, but the narrative of his investigation and catching Jeffs was really interesting.

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      1. The upsetting part about Missoula is that the women who are raped detail exactly what happened, and the author writes that. He also includes a number of court reporter documents (what everyone said word-for-word). The other upsetting factor is I completed my graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, at which football players are accused of rape frequently. One young woman who was a student at ND’s sister school took her own life while I was teaching there after I finished my degree. She wasn’t my student, but it shook the campus. Krakauer mentions Notre Dame in his book.

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  3. I find Tucker Carlson’s misogyny egregious on any given day, let alone this time.

    Anyhow! I find your point about law enforcement’s slow action very telling and the comparison to Satanic worship thought provoking. Too many people hadcto know what was going on here.

    I’m definitely checking this one out. Great review💜

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know, he’s just the living worst, isn’t he?

      I thought it was very telling too, especially when the author details how much evidence he handed over and the reaction he got, like that this was going to be untouchable and cause an uproar. It was actually a tough and massive case to make, but the state of Texas ultimately managed it 😂 (Jeffs had a ranch there.)

      I don’t know how many outsiders actually knew what was going on at the point that the author began investigating, they were an extremely secretive group and the people excommunicated were threatened and harassed into keeping quiet, etc. Now several have written books about escaping and what went on, including Jeffs’ daughter and nephew (I think…a male relative of his, at least) but my understanding was that the author helped get a lot into the open. It’s so unbelievable to me that this can be going on in the US.

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  4. It is staggering the protections that religions get, the willingness to look the other way even from the congregations themselves. Another proof that we never learn from history.

    Liked by 1 person

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