PHOENIX — The security team for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints used burner phones, four wheelers, radio scramblers and a secret network of safe houses to protect its church leader while he was a federal fugitive, according to testimony in federal court Tuesday.
Willie Jessop, a former spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who once provided security for key church leaders, testified for more than five hours in the federal civil rights trial against Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Jessop is a key witness for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is accusing the two cities on the Arizona-Utah border of acting as arms of the FLDS church and discriminating against non-church members. The trial will be decided by a Northern Arizona jury hearing the case in Phoenix federal court.
Jessop gave a detailed account of his efforts to protect church prophet Warren Jeffs when Jeffs was a federal fugitive on charges of arranging underage marriages, and how these efforts were carried out in coordination with local Colorado City-Hildale law enforcement.
But Jessop also described how he turned away from Jeffs after becoming convinced Jeffs had raped a 12-year-old girl, and how church authorities then seized evidence of that rape in a raid on Jessop’s office and home.
Jessop testified local law enforcement officers — known as town marshals — were part of the ring of people using burner cell phones to communicate securely with Jeffs when he was a federal fugitive in 2005 and 2006. Jessop said those wishing to communicate with Jeffs would drive some 40 minutes to the I-15 to place a call, since they believed the FBI was tracking the cell phone tower that served Colorado City and Hildale.
Jessop testified local marshals staged a pretend attack on the church meetinghouse to allow church security a chance to practice in the event of an outside law enforcement raid. Jessop also said the marshals trained the church security members, and he said he personally attended a “sniper” training in Kingman, Ariz., that was supposed to be just for law enforcement.
Jessop said once Jeffs was incarcerated, the church leader would send out directives in letters written in code that could be unscrambled by three of his wives.
Jessop corroborated testimony heard earlier in the trial about how his office’s dining room was used for back-room meetings between church and town leaders to strategize on policy issues, including how to deny non-FLDS church members water hook ups and police department appointments.
The former church spokesman then described the events leading up to his decision to no longer follow Jeffs as his prophet. Jessop said at a meeting at the Child Protective Services agency in Austin, Texas, law enforcement officials shared audio recordings and photos indicating Jeffs had raped a 12-year-old girl he took as a wife during a session with several girls present.
Jessop said after he interviewed the other girls, he concluded the church leader had raped the 12-year-old. He testified that his reaction was to vomit.
Before Jessop gave that testimony, the defense lawyer for the city of Hildale unsuccessfully objected, arguing, “This is not the criminal trial of Warren Jeffs. I don’t represent Warren Jeffs.”
The defense lawyers for the two cities argued Jeffs’ crimes were irrelevant to the case against the cities in their opening statements to the jury.
Jessop said he also had a 2007 recorded confession from Jeffs in jail that he had molested girls, including his sisters and daughters. Jessop said before he became convinced of Jeffs’ guilt, he had believed Jeffs had been drugged or coerced into make that confession.
Jessop said he showed FLDS Bishop Lyle Jeffs, the younger brother of Warren Jeffs, the evidence he had against the church’s prophet.
Jessop testified after he showed other church members the recordings in 2011, that led Lyle Jeffs to seize Jessop’s electronics in an effort to confiscate the evidence. Jessop described watching as church members raided his office and packed up his computers and file cabinets while town marshals circled.
Jessop testified that he did not try to intervene because, “They would have killed me, they’d have killed me on the spot.”
Jessop also described a second incident in 2013 when he tried to recover those belongings in which town marshals — acting on behalf of the church — tried to arrest him.
That time, Jessop said he had to contact the Mojave County Sheriff’s Office to help protect him from the local police.
Under cross examination from Blake Hamilton, the defense lawyer representing the city of Hildale, Jessop acknowledged some of the police officers he was accusing of misconduct were no longer on the force.
But Jessop countered that after some of those officers were decertified and terminated, they were reassigned to other posts within city leadership or church security.
"All those people went on to be used more by the church, that is what is causing these problems," Jessop said.
Hamilton asked Jessop if the federal government had granted him immunity in exchange for his testimony. Jessop said they had not.
Warren Jeffs was ultimately convicted of two counts of child sexual assault and is serving a life sentence in Texas.
Read More From This Series