Willie Jessop: Purported Frontman at Texas Polygamy Compound

'20/20' visits the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas.


EL DORADO, Texas, April 18, 2008— -- Deep in the vast mesquite-covered scrubland of west Texas lies the spiritual center of a secretive polygamous sect.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints arrived quietly nearly five years ago and from nothing, built a virtual instant city whose gleaming white temple quickly became its centerpiece, and today, the center of controversy.

This week, with allegations of child abuse swirling around their compound, sect members reluctantly opened their gates for the first time to outsiders, to protest their innocence and to reveal a glimpse of their pain.

"It literally breaks my heart," said one woman who identified herself as Nancy. "My children are everything to me. Help us get our children back."

The polygamists say the call that triggered the police raid was a hoax and that now authorities are on a witch hunt.

With Warren Jeffs still in jail doing time for rape as an accomplice in the forced marriage of an underage girl, another man has reportedly assumed Jeffs' authority. Four years ago, he was part of an attack on an ABC camera crew in the fundamentalist church community of Colorado City, Ariz., Jeffs' home base.

His name is Willie Jessop, he's a former body guard to the "prophet" and said to be one of the most powerful men in the Texas compound today.

"You know it seems like whenever they're in trouble they call in Big Willie to just kind of run the show," said Sam Brower, a private detective who has spent the past five years tracking Warren Jeffs' flock across several western states. Brower says he has no doubt that sexual abuse is happening in the compound.

"I mean that is part of their lifestyle, part of their culture," he said. "Warren Jeffs brought that over."

Willie Jessop is reviled by former church members who were kicked out by Jeffs in Colorado City, Ariz., such as Issac Wyler and Richard Holm. They say they were forced to leave nearly five years ago.

"Around here a lot of us call him 'Thug Willie,'" Wyler said. "But he was -- he's been kind of Warren's bouncer. He is the one that stays in front of the meeting house door and kicks out people."

Said Holm: "He told me he is willing to give his life in defense of Warren."

"The fact that Willie is here is telling me that they're organizing," private detective Brower said. "They're organizing their stories. He's here to make sure that everything goes the way that the church leaders want it to go, and he's 'The Enforcer.'"

Earlier this week, Jessop offered to give ABC News correspondent John Quinones a tour of the compound but ABC News' crew was turned away at the gate.

The cameras, however, had already captured Jessop inside as he organized a carefully controlled media tour. One of the places cameras are allowed to go is inside Jessop's home. But Jeffs still occupies a place of honor.

The people behind the gates get upset when anyone calls this place a "compound." They refer to it as a "ranch," the Yearning for Zion ranch, Zion meaning "heaven on earth." But in reality it is neither a ranch nor a compound. These 1,700 acres in West Texas are all part of a vision of a shining future capital city of polygamy.

It's Jeffs' vision, which he purportedly uses to reward his most favored followers.

"This is the place where the people of Colorado City yearn to be," Brower said. "They are taking the ones who are the most righteous and pious and bringing them out here."

In addition to the imposing white temple, which ABC News was not allowed to enter, there is just about everything that a community needs to be self-sufficient.

Brower said it's a huge city. "They have their own waste water treatment plant," he said. "They have their own wells. They are self-sustained."

There were several large dormitory-style homes and other buildings under construction, two fields for agriculture, and a granary. A huge warehouse overflowed with a wealth of building supplies. There was also a gravel pit and cement plant -- and lots of security. ABC's crew was constantly being watched by strategically placed vehicles, even while flying overhead.

"There are night-vision cameras out here," Brower said. "There are guard towers … perimeter guards set up everywhere. People patrolling on four-wheelers. It's sometimes hard to distinguish whether they are trying to keep people in or out."

Probably both, but the state's concern is that all the security is there to allow something dark and unholy to proliferate in a supposedly spiritual place.

Brent Jeffs, a former sect member, says he was a victim of rape and molestation by his uncle, none other than the "prophet," Warren Jeffs.

"When I was a little boy around 5 or 6, just attending regular Sunday school … behind closed doors Warren was sneaking around behind and would come down and escort me down the hall and into the bathroom and molest me as a kid," Brent Jeffs said. "Threatening me with eternal damnation if I did not do exactly what he said. I thought I was going to be in trouble. I thought I'd burn in hell for saying something. That's why I kept it a secret."

He said other young boys were also abused by Warren Jeffs, which he has denied. Brent left the church years ago and now he has come to Texas to testify against the sect.

The women within the sect who spoke to the media have said time and again that the children are not in danger, but Brent believes "that's because they've convinced themselves that this is right. The men in here that have brainwashed these women and children have convinced them ever since they were babies that this is right."

He said that the women and children are trapped, and lonely. "You can see it in their eyes," he said. "They just -- they're not even there. They're drones."

As for Willie Jessop, ABC News finally caught up with him outside the courthouse. This time he was less hostile than he was four years ago -– he was almost lawyerly, saying he had "no comment" and "let's see what all the evidence says."

But after nearly five years of investigating the church, private detective Brower said he doesn't care if Jessop has nothing to say.

"You know, any culture that just thumbs their nose at the law and says, 'We're not going to follow man's law -- we're going to follow God's law and God's law says we have the right to marry little girls,'" Brower said. "'If the prophet says it's OK then we're doing it and we're not gonna pay any attention to what the laws are.'"

Today, with the law of Texas coming down on them, the Yearning for Zion ranch is nearly vacant. Most everyone is spending their days in court.

Brent Jeffs, who came all the way from Salt Lake City to testify, said he wasn't afraid to testify. "I know it's right," he said. "It needs to be done. Someone needs to stand up and say, 'This is wrong.' I'm going to do anything I can to help these poor kids and these moms. If they let me."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events