In a darkened theater, the disembodied voice of Warren Jeffs lulls its listeners into a kind of sedation with its trance-like monotone and rolling, rhythmic cadence.
Once it seeps inside a mind, the voice is there to stay, unforgettably haunting and bizarre.
How deeply it must be embedded, then, in the psyche of Roy Jeffs, for whom it was the voice of his biological and heavenly father rolled into one.
Theatergoers in Rapid City and Hot Springs were exposed to that voice last week during two Black Hills Film Festival screenings of the documentary “Prophet’s Prey."
The film features segments of old recorded sermons by Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the FLDS. For thousands of FLDS members, those sermons, delivered in what one documentary subject called a "god voice," were a channel through which the word of god flowed.
Roy Jeffs spent his childhood and early adulthood under the spell of that voice while being moved from one stronghold or hideout to another. At a secretive compound tucked into the southern Black Hills about 15 miles southwest of Pringle, Roy saw underage girls with babies that seemed to be their own; men illegally poaching wildlife for food; and a pervading sense of paranoia that included a guard tower equipped with surveillance cameras.
Two years ago, at the age of 21, Roy ran from the FLDS. He’s still running a mental and emotional race against his past, and he may never fully escape the echoes from his subconscious.
But he’s come far enough to recognize his father’s voice for what it was: not a conduit for God, but a symptom of the madness that led Warren Jeffs to sexually abuse children, allegedly including Roy, his son, in the name of religion.
Path to the Black Hills
Roy spoke with the Journal on Thursday morning, and with audiences Wednesday and Thursday night during panel discussions after the screenings of “Prophet’s Prey.” The film is based on a book of the same name by Utah-based private investigator Sam Brower, who describes the FLDS as an organized crime syndicate that preys on women and children.
The trip was Roy’s first return to the Black Hills since he lived at the FLDS compound in rural Custer County during parts of 2007 and 2008. The secluded, 140-acre site is surrounded by a pine forest and has only one entry road that dead-ends just beyond the compound at the precipice of Red Canyon. The numerous structures there are partially obscured by fences and berms and are overlooked by a three-story guard tower.
Roy’s address was not always so remote. He was born in Salt Lake City and lived there during his early childhood, where he was enmeshed in FLDS teachings but was otherwise relatively free to be a kid and engage in normal childhood activities.
“We had about as normal a life as you could get,” he said.
“Normal” for Roy included having a grandfather — Warren’s father, Rulon Jeffs — who was considered the lead prophet of the FLDS, a breakaway Mormon sect that embraces polygamy.
Roy said his early life also included sexual abuse by Warren when Roy was 3 or 4 years old. The memories of that abuse are Roy's earliest recollections.
Rulon died in 2002, and Warren assumed the role of prophet. A dark period began for members of the FLDS.
“Almost immediately when he took over, all of a sudden it was just secrecy and hiding,” Roy said.
With the 2002 Winter Olympics expected to bring throngs of supposedly immoral “gentiles” to Salt Lake City, Warren convinced the FLDS faithful there to leave their houses, businesses and jobs and relocate to the FLDS-controlled community known as Short Creek, the colloquial name applied to the twin border cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hilldale, Utah. Warren had already brought Roy and his mother there.
After several years in Short Creek, Roy was sent with his mother to New Mexico, where they lived in solitude for a while until being moved to Texas. Warren Jeffs, meanwhile, had taken some of his late father’s wives as his own and married additional women and girls, including some as young as 12, on his way to fathering an estimated 60 children with more than 70 wives. Roy's mother was the third of Warren's brides.
At 14, Roy’s childhood and schooling ended as he was separated from his mother and sent to work in support of the FLDS. After a stint doing farm labor at an FLDS property in southeast Wyoming, he was sent to South Dakota.
Life in the compound
Roy arrived at the South Dakota compound in the spring of 2007, four years after the land was acquired by the FLDS. The faithful there were busily building it into a “Land of Refuge,” Roy said, pursuant to orders issued by Warren, even though the prophet had been arrested in 2006. Warren would later be convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting girls he took as underage brides.
Roy saw some young girls with babies at the South Dakota compound, but he was kept strictly separated from girls and women and knew little about their lives, he said. One of his sisters lived at the compound, but he was not allowed to speak with her.
The men at the compound reported at 5 a.m. daily to a large storehouse, Roy said, where they prayed and prepared for the day. Then they were sent out to work, breaking only for lunch and continuing until sundown. Roy helped remodel a house and build two others, one with eight or nine bedrooms and the other with 30 to 40. He does not know how many people live at the compound now but estimates it could hold as many as 200 people.
Some of the construction projects came with strict deadlines set by Warren. When that happened, the men would work through the night, sometimes for days on end.
Guards constantly walked the perimeter of the compound. The guard tower was outfitted with surveillance cameras that could peer far up the gravel road leading to the compound, and alarms were sounded whenever non-FLDS “gentiles” or excommunicated FLDS “apostates” approached. At such times, Roy said, the compound dwellers were ordered to retreat into their homes and buildings.
Yet some of the men at the compound routinely drove to cities in the Black Hills to obtain supplies, while young men like Roy, and the women and girls, were mostly cloistered. The compound residents ate food grown in large gardens, and Roy said the men also poached deer and wild turkeys.
Total obedience was the compound’s guiding principle. Roy recalled a coworker at the compound who was not allowed treatment for cancer. The man died, Roy said, and the body was taken away in the middle of the night.
Roy said a massive dirt rectangle at the compound measuring about 260,000 square feet, which is the dominant feature in recent aerial photos of the site, had not yet been excavated while he was there. It’s been speculated that the excavated land is intended for a temple. But Roy said it's apparently intended as a warehouse site for construction materials to be used in the building of a massive temple in Missouri, after God’s anticipated wiping of nonbelievers from the Earth via some form of apocalypse.
That vision builds upon the FLDS conception of itself as the true Mormon church, and its adherence to the teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who originally intended to build a New Jerusalem in Missouri.
After his time in South Dakota, Roy was eventually sent on the road with FLDS work crews employed by FLDS-controlled construction companies.
The FLDS provided a house for the crews, and a crew boss exerted control over the men, who were paid minimum wage and ordered to give at least $1,000 a month back to the FLDS. While away from the prying eyes of church leaders, some of the men indulged in television-viewing and alcohol consumption, Roy said, but they still maintained their belief in Warren Jeffs and his teachings.
Roy thought about leaving the FLDS but feared that Warren would punish his mother for raising a rebellious child. And Roy still believed, despite his exposure to the broader world, that his father was God’s chosen prophet and that leaving the FLDS was a mortal sin.
Gradually, though, Roy came to desire a better life for himself. He had not been allowed to speak to his mother in a couple of years and suspected he might never be allowed to reunite with her, even if he remained in the FLDS. And, ironically, the persistent apocalyptic preaching of Roy’s father had convinced Roy that if the world was going to end, he might as well get some enjoyment out of life while he could.
While working at a job site in Des Moines, Iowa, for the FLDS-controlled Reliance Electric in 2014, Roy finally broke free.
“I just took off running,” he said.
He ran to a nearby mall. Using a smartphone he’d purchased with the little money he’d been able to scrape together, he bought a $160 plane ticket to Salt Lake City. He had some cousins there who’d left the FLDS, and he figured there were other former FLDS members in the heavily Mormon-populated city who could also help him.
He had to first overcome a fear that his father, whom Roy still believed had a direct line to God, might somehow cause the plane to crash.
When Roy got to Salt Lake City, he had trouble reconciling his lingering belief in the FLDS with the attitudes of liberated former FLDS members, and he wound up staying alone in hotel rooms until he ran out of money.
Growing desperate, he looked up the nonprofit organization known as Holding out HELP (the acronym stands for Helping, Encouraging & Loving Polygamists), which provides housing, food, clothing, counseling, job training, education and other services to people as they transition out of the FLDS.
Roy became a surrogate son to the organization’s founder, Tonia Tewell, a Nebraska native now living in Utah. Some of Roy's half-siblings left the FLDS and said they, too, had been sexually abused by their father, which caused Roy’s belief in both his father and the FLDS to finally disintegrate. Today, he retains a belief in some form of higher power but is turned off by most forms of organized religion.
Roy thinks his mother may be at the South Dakota compound, and he traveled there Friday morning to observe it from a distance. He did not attempt to make contact with anyone inside, because he did not want to subject them to the chaotic scrambling and hiding that he experienced at the compound whenever ex-FLDS "apostates" tried to visit.
A number of FLDS leaders, including Warren's brother Seth Jeffs, who is a leader at the Black Hills compound, were arrested recently and charged with crimes related to food-stamp fraud. Roy Jeffs said the arrests will probably not alter life for FLDS members at the Black Hills compound or other FLDS enclaves, where persecution seems only to heighten the devotion.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the people themselves who are in there,” Roy said. “They’re going to have to get to the point where they say, ‘I’m done with this,’ and start leaving. Because as long as they can keep some people believing, they can keep going.”
Now 23 years old, Roy resides in Salt Lake City and has a job in technology manufacturing. He had little hope of being deemed worthy of marriage in the FLDS, he said, but now he’s cautiously entering the dating world.
He said if he does get married and have children one day, he will benefit from the hard-earned lessons of his past.
“It’s caused me hell in my life emotionally,” he said. “Every day I get up, and sometimes it’s an absolute battle to find worth in life.
“But at the same time I’m so grateful for it, because it taught me how I never want to be and what I never want my kids to go through. Ever.”
Contact Seth Tupper at firstname.lastname@example.org