Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs may be serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexual assault, but the former head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) continues to control his radical off-branch of the Mormon Church behind bars.
According to an insider within the radical Mormon sect, Warren Jeffs has been purging disloyal members and continuing to run the FLDS Church since around mid-November 2011.
But his attempts to keep control of the Church, as borderline illegal as they might be, only seem to be driving his followers away from him, in what may be the biggest split within the fundamentalist Mormon sect since its creation.
'Members were going to be destroyed'
Willie Jessop, a former FLDS Church spokesman, said something close to 1,500 men, women and children failed to meet stringent new requirements that Jeffs has been passing down through his brother Lyle, who personally interviews families to test their loyalty.
Those families who fail to meet Jeffs' standards are either excommunicated outright or put on probationary status from the Church.
Jessop reports that some marriages have been dissolved and families split apart since Jeffs first began to pass down the new edicts, which form the basis of the leader's Holy United Order, from within his jail cell.
We started to hear about [Church leaders] kicking people out, said Isaac Wyler, who was excommunicated in 2004. He reports that Warren Jeffs' edicts have spread from conditions for living to stringent guidelines that affect all the communities under the FLDS Church's sway.
We heard that at the end of the year [members] were going to be destroyed.
There are eight questions [in the interview], Jessop told The Associated Press regarding the interviews.
But before they get there, they ask, 'Do you accept Warren Jeffs as God's mouthpiece and your prophet?' And if you believe he can rule in all the affairs of your life.
A copy of the question list shows inquiries ranging from what worshipers say in their daily prayers to whether they have carnal desires or dwell in the wickedness of evil dross of this generation.
Breaks Within the Church
But even as Warren Jeffs attempts to wrest back control of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, some within his congregation are beginning to break away from his ever-tightening hold.
Some spouses, in response to corrections by Jeffs and his brother, are refusing church-directed breakups and leaving the FLDS Church.
Some of these families remain in their homes along the Arizona-Utah state line, but others are leaving the community entirely.
What makes this important is that there has never been a time when people in the community have taken this sort of stand against Warren, said Jessop. He himself left the Church a year ago, but still considers himself FLDS.
From daily conversations with other members of the community, Jessop said many in the Church were feeling confused or uncertain about the Jeffs family and their leadership. FLDS is a radical outbranch of mainstream Mormonism, and today has little in common with its original namesake.
Warren had created a wholesale distrust of the Church, he said. Everyone is second-guessing their religion.
Jeffs' Hold on FLDS Community
Warren Jeffs, 56, rose to power following the death of his father Rulon in 2002, who had led the Church for almost 20 years.
The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints differs from Mormonism chiefly in its belief in plural marriage, or polygamy.
Warren Jeffs teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives. Jeffs was imprisoned in August 2011 for the aggravated sexual assault of a 15 year old and a 12 year old, both of whom were his spiritual wives.
Warren Jeffs, considered a prophet by his followers, also controlled all the money donated to his Church and made by his congregation, with only the bare minimum left to his parishioners each month.
He also has the first and final say on what couples could get married within his community.
According to CNN, the polygamous leader has imposed several harsh rules banned things like children's toys, bicycles and Internet for members of the 10,000 strong Church until he gets back.
Despite a life sentence plus 20 years, Jeffs insists that the walls in the prison where he's at will fall and crumble, Joni Holm, who has relatives in the sect, told the Deseret News.
Jeffs also allegedly declared all marriages within the community void until he could return and seal them.
'Extremely Painful' Evolution
He regulates sex and money on behalf of God, said Jessop. It's pretty real and it's damn serious.
But for Jessop and others, the recent tightening within the Church is a sign of desperation more than a sign of control.
I think there's an evolution taking place that is a major change, said Richard Holm, a former FLDS member recently excommunicated by Warren Jeffs. He was a senior church members until his ejection some six weeks ago.
I'm really glad to see people one by one break free of it.
Jessop agrees, to a point. He views that evolution as far slower and more disrupted than Holm does.
I think the Church is going through a social crisis that is extremely painful, but in the long term, it's healthy, he said.
Obedience to Jeffs and distrust of the outside world are integral parts of the current Church. AP reports that those who've heard of why Jeffs was imprisoned, if they'd heard at all, didn't believe that he'd sexually assaulted his spiritual brides.
The Daily Mail insinuated that the girls assaulted by Jeffs may still be held by his followers for sexual purposes, something Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is currently investigating.
Jeffs has even told his followers that the reason he remains in prison is because of their lack of faith, and who managed to preach to his followers several times over prison phones before he was caught by the Texas prison guards.
'You never got to see the man behind the curtain'
But the former FLDS spokesman has faith that the elaborate web Warren Jeffs has spun for so many years is finally beginning to come undone.
What he teaches is so opposite of what he did, Jessop told The AP.
You never got to see the man behind the curtain, and there were so many curtains, and so much secrecy.
Forty thousand people in America are self-described Mormon fundamentalists who practice plural marriage and the FLDS remains the largest organized fundamentalist group in the world.
Warren Jeffs is still insisting that he have a new trial. He argues that his religious freedoms were violated by U.S. courts, the same argument he made in his defense back in 2011.