Jailed Polygamist Leader Warren Jeffs Issues Hundreds of Orders From Prison

Warren Jeffs' influence extends far beyond his prison walls.

November 20, 2012, 1:55 PM

Nov. 21, 2012— -- Six years after Warren Jeffs was first arrested and later sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting children, it's almost as though the fundamentalist leader, whom the faithful call their "prophet," never left Colorado City.

Jeffs' followers, who live in the desert town nestled on the border between Arizona and Utah, are a radical splinter group of the mainstream Mormon church who call themselves the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"Anybody who thinks that Warren Jeffs' incarceration ended his rule in this community has no idea what they're talking about. He is in many ways more powerful because now he's martyred," said reporter Mike Watkiss, who has covered the community of 8,000 people for 25 years.

A raid in 2008 on the group's Yearning for Zion compound in Eldorado, Texas, brought the FLDS community into the national spotlight. Authorities found a polygamous community and pregnant child brides. Pictures of women in pastel prairie clothes with tightly braided hairstyles and stories of the controlling, male-dominated environment offered the world a glimpse into the lives of the reclusive group.

"The prophet literally tells people where they will live, whom they will marry," Watkiss said. "Warren buys the allegiance of these men because they can't get into heaven without him, because he needs to give them three wives. That's the only way you're going to get to heaven."

Despite the fact Jeffs spends his days in a Texas prison, his followers in Colorado City have not left him.

His presence is felt in homes, offices, on computers and even cell phones in Colorado City.

"We miss our prophet, Warren Jeffs," said Dr. Maryam Holm, the town's primary health care provider. "We know he is innocent and we all yearn for his deliverance, to be able to see him again."

PHOTOS: FLDS Then and Now

A year-long investigation by ABC News' "20/20" revealed that Jeffs' presence extends far beyond his prison walls and into the daily lives of his faithful followers. It started when he ordered followers to destroy all of their children's toys.

"At home you couldn't have any toys. You couldn't ride bikes either. 'Cause he gave away all our bikes. I didn't even get a chance to ride mine before I gave it away," said 6-year-old Nellie Steed, who left the sect after her mother was banished by Jeffs.

The FLDS leader has such a tight grip on the day-to-day lives of the faithful that he has even banned corn and dairy products, said Jeffs' former bodyguard, Willie Jessop, who compared the power his former boss still exerts to notorious cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones.

Earlier this year, Jeffs forbade intimacy between husbands and wives and selected 15 men to father all future FLDS children.

"If a woman wants to have a baby or whatever, she has to go to one of those 15 men. But then she has to have two other men with the one of the 15 men in the room to witness," Willie Steed, 19, told ABC News' Amy Robach.

Steed, who is Nellie's older brother, broke free from the FLDS church in February. Jeffs first banished his father for no reason, and then his mother, Suzette Steed, who refused to leave without her children. Willie agreed to guide "20/20" through the strange and clandestine world.

Following every move were the "God Squad," Jeffs' secret police tasked with keeping an eye on the media.

"They know where we are and they just follow us," Steed said.

In the desert sits a newly-built multi-million dollar home, the product of another one of Jeffs' prison edicts.

"They said if we build it then it would melt the bars or whatever in his jail and he would be released," Steed said.

But Jeffs' influence extends far beyond the daily lives of his followers.

When ABC News visited city hall and the police department, officials declined to answer any questions about Jeffs.

This year, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against town officials, accusing them of acting as an arm of the FLDS.

In response, the Mohave County Sheriff's Office has stepped up patrols in Colorado City, but it's proven to be a challenge to police a town that views law enforcement as religious persecution.

"They won't talk to you because of who you are and who you represent," said Sgt. Mike Hoggard of the Mohave County Sheriff's Office. "It's troubling."

It was this tyranny of control that caused Willie Steed to question the values of the FLDS when he made the decision to leave.

"The church can just totally kill a family. In just the matter of three days, two days, an hour. And they can break the spirit of their people," he said. "And as you've seen coming out to this place ... they have nothing left, they have no hope, and they can see no future."

Watch the full story on "20/20: Breaking Polygamy" Friday at 10 p.m. ET

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