The twisted world of Warren Jeffs: Former FLDS members speak out

Exclusive interviews with ex-FLDS members offer new picture of covert community.

When polygamy was outlawed by the Mormon Church in 1890, splinter groups formed, including the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, in which members could practice polygamy – or "plural marriage" – discreetly, without persecution.

The FLDS was able to flourish in a remote enclave nestled along the border of Utah and Arizona near Zion National Park in a community called Short Creek.

In the FLDS community, the most important person is the prophet, and members believe that God communicates directly through him. Among the core beliefs of the community is that the more wives a man has, the closer he gets to salvation.

From 1986 to 2002, Rulon Jeffs served as FLDS prophet and president.

As Rulon Jeffs' health declined, his son Warren Jeffs slowly took control of the FLDS community. Rulon Jeffs died in 2002, and Warren Jeffs succeeded him as prophet.

FLDS members were used to taking direction from Warren Jeffs but, over time, his orders became more restrictive – and, to some, alarming.

Jeffs banned television, movies, popular music, and fictional books. He also executed strict mandates on behavior, dress, and language. Women were told to "keep sweet," suppress emotions and feelings, obey their husbands, and above all, obey Jeffs — the all-knowing prophet.

Briell Decker, Jeffs' 65th wife, told ABC, "'Keep Sweet' meant you could have no emotions except for sweetness. That was the only emotion allowed."

ABC's new special, "Truth and Lies: The Doomsday Prophet," streaming now on Hulu, features exclusive, never-before-seen interviews with FLDS members filmed inside the community.

Beneath what appeared to be an attempt to present an ideal community of content and obedient followers, Jeffs allegedly used his power to pursue twisted exploits.

ABC sat down with Jeffs' daughter, Rachel Blackmore, who alleged her father sexually abused her for years during childhood. "When your parent does something like that, it feels shameful on you, too. And then it kept happening," Blackmore told ABC.

While Jeffs accumulated brides, some of them young teens, underage marriages were common in the broader community.

At the age of 14, Elissa Wall was married off to her 19-year-old first cousin. Wall said she had no choice but to go through with the marriage, which was officiated by Jeffs.

Ruth Stubbs, another member of the FLDS community, was married off when she was 16. Her husband, Rodney Holm, was 32. He was a police officer in Short Creek and was already married to two other women. Holm was arrested for bigamy and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and spent a year in prison.

Warren Jeffs' alleged involvement in facilitating marriages between underage girls and adult men led to him being placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list in May 2006. Criminal charges had been brought against him in Utah and Arizona.

Jeffs eventually fled Short Creek and went on the lam, hiding out in various cities around the United States per his journals – or "priesthood records" – that were later presented at his trial. While on the run, Jeffs had a compound built in Eldorado, Texas – where he would send hand-picked followers, telling them they were being called to Zion, or "heaven on earth." Jeffs named the compound the YFZ Ranch (or "Yearning for Zion" Ranch).

"People were slowly disappearing [from Short Creek] at that time," said Charlene Jeffs, a former FLDS member who was then married to Warren Jeffs' brother, Lyle. Several of Charlene's children, Ammon, Susie, and Thomas, were called to Zion, she said.

"It was supposed to be an honor to have them called forth. But all it was, was heartache," said Charlene Jeffs, who was exiled from the FLDS community in 2012.

In August 2006, Jeffs' journey on the run came to a halt when his car was pulled over for a routine traffic violation outside of Las Vegas. Then, court proceedings began.

Wall testified against Jeffs in 2007. Wall told ABC it was an empowering experience: "I was forced to face him. I was forced to get on the stand, face him, and say 'you did this' ... I was no longer just an innocent little girl who just did everything out of fear. I had a voice and it was starting to become heard."

Jeffs was found guilty of accomplice to rape for facilitating Wall's underage marriage. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The charges would be overturned on appeal in 2010, and Jeffs was never retried. However, by that point, other evidence against Jeffs was found at the YFZ Ranch after law enforcement raided the ranch, leading to new charges.

"[Officers] saw scrapbooks and letters supporting the fact that these girls were being married off at a very young age and were having babies," said Angela Goodwin, a district attorney in Texas.

During the raid, officers found horrific evidence incriminating Jeffs – including an audio recording of him having sexual relations with a 12-year-old. Officials also discovered a pregnant 15-year-old at the ranch who was carrying Jeffs' child.

Former FLDS members allege Jeffs still runs the church from behind bars in Palestine, Texas, and releases revelations that his devout followers adhere to. One revelation from the summer of 2022 has been particularly concerning to former members, especially those with family members still in the religion.

"The revelations say that within five years, the children will be translated to heaven. But the problem is … you have to die first," Roger Hoole, a private attorney involved in many FLDS cases, told ABC.

Amid current concerns about Jeffs' revelations, Short Creek is moving on – and perhaps nothing is more indicative of the vast progress in the community than the election of Donia Jessop as mayor of Hildale, on the Utah border of Short Creek.

Jessop is the first female mayor and first former FLDS member elected to office. Jessop has implemented modernization in the community – for example, she is working with the United Effort Plan to completely transform the former FLDS meetinghouse.

"We want to recreate a place, a community building, where we can come together and celebrate in the things that we've always loved, the programs, the dance, the arts. We want to create a safe haven for the people," Mayor Jessop told ABC.

Another major development in the community was the creation of the Short Creek Dream Center, a place of refuge for people transitioning out of the FLDS – and anyone fleeing oppressive or abusive environments.

The Dream Center, symbolically, was the former home of Warren Jeffs. Briell Decker, one of Jeffs' former wives, was granted the 28,000-square-foot home after escaping the FLDS – and she helped create the Dream Center.

Decker, who experienced so much pain and trauma in her early life, says she is proud to now help others at the center.

"I feel like I'm safe. I feel like more lives are being touched than I could have ever possibly imagined," Decker told ABC.

Wall, now an activist and author, moved back to Short Creek several years ago and noticed an emotional shift in the community.

"The most important change that I think Short Creek has undergone in the last decade is healing. As people returned and came back, bringing all of their experiences, for them they were coming home," Wall said.

As veteran journalist Mike Watkiss tells ABC, "This is a story about a culture, a community, that has chronically oppressed women. The women are the victims, and the women have been the forces and instruments of change."