A year ago Jon Krakauer told the more than 800 people crammed into a Utah movie theater for a reading of his book, “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,” that he wasn’t pursuing social reform when he wrote about religious extremism.
Since then, he has so deeply immersed himself in the distressed lives of members and former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that he no longer will write about the polygamous sect that inhabits twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border.
“I’ve been asked to help a lot of people who feel they’ve been victimized by this culture,” Krakauer told the Associated Press on Friday in a rare interview. “I just keep getting drawn deeper and deeper into this.”
By “this,” Krakauer means the religious politics of FLDS and its leader-prophet, Warren Jeffs, who reportedly has banished hundreds of men and boys from Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., in a struggle for control over the sect, whose estimated 6,000 to 12,000 members make it the largest polygamous group in the West.
Krakauer’s best-selling book on religious extremism focused on the 1984 cold-blooded murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in American Fork. He will be in Salt Lake City on Saturday to lend weight to an organization calling itself Diversity, founded by former polygamist Dr. Dan Fischer.
Fischer, the Midvale dentist who invented the tooth-bleaching product Ultradent, and his group have pledged to help some 400 boys ages 13 to 21 who have been banished or excommunicated from the FLDS.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who will appear with Krakauer and Fischer at a Capitol news conference with some of the youngsters they call the “lost boys,” said he met Fischer about a year ago. Shurtleff said Fischer has been providing housing and financial support for the boys, whom Shurtleff called victims.
That’s how Krakauer sees them, too.
“Boys are fined and harassed by the police, who are sworn to uphold the law but serve as minions of Warren Jeffs,” Krakauer said. “Hundreds of these boys over the past four years have been cast out. Most of them end up on the streets of (Las) Vegas or St. George,” where they turn to drugs or prostitution.
While most have been kicked out of the community ostensibly for misbehavior, Krakauer said the real problem is plain: The creed says a man must be a polygamist to achieve godly approval. But when 50 percent of the population is male, the surplus must be jettisoned.
The boys are virtually helpless in the normal world because they know nothing of it except the evil that will befall them should they venture away from Short Creek, the old name for the twin towns, Krakauer said. ” ‘You will be ground into native element’ is one of their phrases. It is drummed into their heads they don’t stand a chance out there,” he said. “These kids are programmed to fail.”
Sect members consider themselves fundamentalists because they continue to practice polygamy as Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commanded. The mainline church disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice or preach it. But an estimated 30,000 polygamists whose beliefs are rooted in Mormonism live in Utah and other parts of the southwest, Mexico and Canada. Smith’s teachings on polygamy remain in Mormon scripture.
During his years researching the book, Krakauer traveled to polygamist communities in Mexico and Canada. One of his main sources for the book was Deloy Bates, who has been excommunicated from the FLDS but still lives in Short Creek. One of Bates’ sisters is married to Fischer, who left the FLDS about a dozen years ago, Krakauer said.
Since then, Fischer has housed the castoff children and given them jobs in his company, Krakauer said.
Fischer wasn’t available Friday for comment, said Diversity director Lynette Phillips.
Krakauer said his research and willingness to check out rumors passed on by FLDS sources has made him privy to chilling information about Jeffs.
“He’s feared and despised and rules by fear. Warren is by far the scariest of the prophets to come along,” Krakauer said. “Warren Jeffs has really got my goat.”
As he’s gotten more involved in the lives of the polygamists, “I guess maybe I’ve gotten sucked into their zealotry a bit, but mostly I try to cool their jets,” he said. “I would love to find an exit strategy, believe me. I really would like to pass this on to someone else. Maybe when Warren is out of the picture.”
Discord within the church has grown since early January after Jeffs excommunicated about 20 men, many considered to be his rivals, in an apparent effort to further consolidate power.
Jeffs, 48, assumed leadership of the church after the September 2002 death of his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs. Many at the time thought one of two church elders, Louis Barlow or Fred Jessop, would have been named president. Both have now been excommunicated.
Utah and Arizona prosecutors have been investigating allegations of welfare and tax fraud, incest, child abuses and forced marriages of young girls to adult men. Anti-polygamy activists claim FLDS Church leaders often traffic young girls between Colorado City-Hildale to the church’s enclave at Creston Valley in British Columbia.
On Thursday, former sect member Brent Jeffs, 21, filed a lawsuit that alleges Warren Jeffs and his brothers Blaine Jeffs and Leslie Jeffs sexually abused him when he was a child. Brent Jeffs claims the three told him the actions were a way to make him a man.
Ron Parker, an attorney for the church, said the church and Jeffs denied the allegations. Warren Jeffs’ whereabouts are unknown to most outside his closed community, whose members are told not to speak to reporters.
Brent Jeffs’ attorney Joanne Suder was with the Baltimore law firm that sued the Baltimore Catholic diocese over child sexual abuse.
“I just keep getting drawn deeper and deeper into this.”