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.
My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints
by Sam Brower
published 2011 by Bloomsbury