When a throng of praying, hymn-singing polygamous women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints confronted Sabrina Broadbent while she was getting her four children out of the church-dominated community, she tried to stay as calm as possible.
“I knew my kids were watching,” she told “20/20.” “They needed to see me have courage. … I did not want them to see me cry.”
Broadbent is a former member of the FLDS, a polygamist sect that dominates the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, which straddle the Arizona-Utah border. The church community is still allegedly controlled by their imprisoned prophet Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for the sexual assault of two girls, including a 12-year-old he counted among his more than 70 wives.
The tense standoff, which caught national attention when it happened in early April, lasted for more than 15 hours.
“Everybody that was surrounding the van… they’re all for Warren,” Broadbent said. “They kept yelling and they were singing and praying and I’m like, ‘Oh, I have got to get out of here, I feel so uncomfortable with you guys right now.’”
Broadbent left the group eight years ago, leaving her four children behind because she believed the church would make it impossible for her to win custody.
“There was nothing I could do at that point because I didn’t dare go up against the church or anything,” Broadbent said. “I could never do that. … I didn’t have money for attorneys. I didn’t know anybody back then … never thought I could have a chance.”
Once someone leaves the community, she said, they are ostracized.
“To them, someone leaving the community, it’s like death to them,” Broadbent said. “So once they leave, they’re cut off. They can never see those people again.”
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a radical polygamist sect that splintered off from the Mormon Church, or more formally called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more than a century ago. FLDS ancestors broke away from the Mormon Church over the issue of polygamy after the church renounced its practice. The Mormon Church, with over 15 million members, is not connected to the smaller polygamist sect.
Since leaving the church, Broadbent has remarried and has a 3-year-old son with her new husband, but she never lost touch with her four other children, now ages 8 to 13. She kept a journal and photo album of her court-ordered visitations over the years.
But by Christmastime 2014, Broadbent said it became painfully obvious that her FLDS children viewed her as an evil outsider. Broadbent sought full custody this year and on April 2, a Mohave County judge awarded her legal custody of all four children.
But when Broadbent, her brother and her husband showed up with a court order at her former sister-in-law Samantha’s house, where her kids had been staying, Broadbent said they were suddenly surrounded by more than a dozen “God Squad” vehicles.
“I just got a bad feeling in my gut. I’m like, ‘Lock the doors,’” Broadbent said.
“The God Squad” is the FLDS Church’s security team, which watches for outsiders and is known to have an extensive network of cameras and spies across the FLDS community.
Broadbent said they left and returned early the next morning. When she spotted two of her sons, Isaac, her oldest, and Rulon, she called out to them, but the kids kept their distance.
“I said, ‘Isaac, come here, let me talk to you,’” Broadbent said. “And he’s like, ‘Get away from me, get away from me, you apostate.’ And he jumped the fence and ran.”
Broadbent said her kids turned their backs on her because “they’ve been poisoned against me” by other FLDS Church members because she left.
“They called me the devil a few times. ‘You’re the devil,’ you know, ‘You’re going to hell.’ All this stuff,” she said.
Broadbent tried to negotiate with her former sister-in-law, but she just stalled, telling Broadbent, “Warren is coming, he will deliver these children,” referring to the imprisoned Jeffs.
That’s when Broadbent said scores of church members started showing up. Although FLDS Church members are forbidden from watching videos or television, many were carrying cameras.
“They just tried to intimidate you,” Broadbent said. “They all had cameras … they had come right up to your face … they’re obnoxious.”
Her sons joined the crowd of FLDS members videotaping Broadbent. At one point, the boys even threw a chicken into her van.
Hours into the standoff, Broadbent said she received a handwritten note from her children, which laid out demands on behalf of their aunt. “We will only get in this car if you will sign this paper saying we will have visitation with Samantha.”
Broadbent refused to sign the document and the standoff dragged on.
Eventually, Broadbent said she had enough and gave permission to the local sheriff’s department to use force if necessary to remove her children. When they arrived, the deputies reviewed Broadbent’s court order and went up to the house to get the children.
But before the deputies could act, FLDS women in prairie dresses paraded the kids out. The children got up to Broadbent’s van doors, but didn’t want to get in. Finally, a sheriff’s deputy told the children it was time to leave. The kids climbed into the van, and the family drove away.
While she finally had her kids back, Broadbent said her troubles at home with them were just beginning.
The non-profit organization Defenders of Children has set up a fund for Sabrina Broadbent, Charlene Jeffs and other FLDS families. Click here for more information.