Court Testimony Gives Look At Life Inside Polygamous Church Community

By Jude Joffe-Block
January 28, 2016

PHOENIX — Even though Charlene Jeffs was married to the bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, she could not avoid falling out of favor with the church and forced exile from her family — a fate common to mutliple witnesses testifying in the federal trial against the twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah.

Charlene Jeffs, now the ex-wife of church bishop Lyle Jeffs, gave emotional testimony in front of a federal jury Wednesday about how the church banished her from her family and forced her to live apart in a trailer.

In her testimony she claimed local police in the twin border cities of Colorado City and Hildale are appointed and directed by the FLDS church — one of the allegations the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to prove in a trial against the two cities.

The cities were settled by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who practice polygamy and broke off from the mainstream Mormon religion. The federal government is trying to convince a jury the cities are controlled by the FLDS church and discriminate against non-church members by denying them housing, utilities and police protection.

In the past week, the government has called several witnesses who have shed light on their experience in the FLDS church and as residents of the community, known as Short Creek.

Charlene Jeffs spoke about the negative changes that occurred in the church under the leadership of her brother-in-law Warren Jeffs, who church members believed to be their prophet.

She said Warren Jeffs forbade couples from embracing, kissing or marital relations, and parents were not allowed to hug or kiss their children.

“He has taken all natural affection from the people,” Charlene Jeffs told the jury in a soft voice.

Warren Jeffs is now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for two counts of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old and 15-year-old he took as wives. He is still considered the prophet of the FLDS church.

Charlene Jeffs gave insight into the “United Order,” an elite group within the FLDS church for only the most devout. She said members — which included police officers — had to prove they did not use the internet, text, watch movies or swear. According to her testimony, United Order members were baptized into the group and shared access to a storehouse full of food and clothing. She testified that members who received food stamps were mandated to use them to supply food for the storehouse.

Members were not allowed to associate with FLDS church members who were not part of the separate United Order sect. And since United Order members could be kicked out at any point, many families were split apart based on membership and had to live apart.

Charlene Jeffs said she lost her United Order membership, a process she described as “devastating.” She said in 2012 and 2013 she was exiled to live alone in a trailer away from her family. She testified about seeing her children at a gas station and realizing that she could not speak to them or they would risk losing their United Order membership. Charlene Jeffs was her husband’s first wife, but he had other spiritual wives who she called sister-wives.

Charlene Jeffs said her neighbor’s son repeatedly vandalized her trailer and slashed her tires. She said when she confronted the neighbor, Daniel Roy Barlow, she threatened to contact the local law enforcement, known as marshals, if his son did not stop. She said Barlow responded, “That’s my new assignment.” He is currently employed as a marshal.

Charlene Jeffs said she understood Barlow’s comment to mean he was assigned to be a marshal by the church.

She said she decided to leave the community in 2014, and wanted custody of her children. At a custody hearing in St. George, Utah, in April 2015, she said Marshal Curtis Cooke came in uniform, and told her he was sent by the church to observe the proceedings. She said Cooke told her she should have notified the marshals first about her custody battle.

Charlene Jeffs said she responded that if she had notified the marshals, they would have helped the church hide her children from her. She said Cooke nodded in agreement.

Up until this point in the trial, most of the allegations against police officers have been about incidents that happened in the past with former marshals.

Defense lawyers have argued that marshals who acted inappropriately were decertified and terminated years ago. For example, marshals who were revealed to be loyal to Warren Jeffs when he was a federal fugitive are no longer on the force today.

Charlene Jeffs' testimony, however, included allegations against marshals who are currently employed by Colorado City and Hildale. In cross-examination, Colorado City defense lawyer Jeff Matura got Charlene Jeffs to acknowledge the marshals had in fact helped her. He suggested Cooke had been sent to the custody hearing because Charlene Jeffs had surprised the marshals’ office with a 20/20 television crew asking for a welfare check on her children, and the marshals wanted to know the judge’s ruling in case there was another incident.

Charlene Jeffs revealed that her ex-husband Lyle had asked her not to testify in the trial. She said he advised her to “answer them nothing,” which is the prevalent FLDS philosophy for how church members should respond to court summons and government questions.

But Charlene Jeffs told the jury she could not follow that advice. “I didn’t want to go to jail for someone else’s wrong.”  

Earlier in the day, the jury watched a video deposition of Warren Jeffs’ brother, Isaac Jeffs, where he employed the “answer them nothing,” strategy.

Isaac Jeffs, a clean-shaven man wearing a blue collared shirt, is seen in the video refusing to answer most questions under the advice of his defense lawyer, Tucson attorney Michael Piccarreta.

Piccarreta can be heard at the start of the video reading a statement for his client that explains Isaac Jeffs will invoke his Fifth Amendment right to not self-incriminate, as well as his First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

The statement says as “a member of an unpopular religious group that has been subjected to persecution and discrimination by state and federal governments since our faith was founded” Isaac Jeffs will not answer questions that “will subject me, members of my religion and my religion itself to further harassment and adverse consequences from state and federal government officials…”

Some of Warren Jeffs’ own writings and personal dictations were also presented to the jury Wednesday afternoon in federal court. The Justice Department called John Nicholas Hanna, a Texas Ranger who was involved in the criminal investigation of Jeffs that resulted in his conviction for two counts of child sex abuse.

Hanna discovered a trove of 927 items of evidence from the FLDS compound in Texas, including church records, family photographs and Warren Jeffs’ dictations secured in elaborate vaults.

Hanna explained he could be confident the audio files he found were Warren Jeffs’ voice because Jeffs has such a unique voice, unlike any other he had heard before. Hanna described it as a “montone-hypnotic type voice” with a slight lisp on occasion.

Some of the dictations relate to Warren Jeffs’ decision to expel certain men from the church, and who to appoint to certain city leadership positions. Hanna said that many of the dictations were transcribed by one of Warren Jeffs’ wives.

In one, Warren Jeffs talks about a conversation with his brother Lyle Jeffs in which Lyle wanted advice about whether he should have marital relations with his new 16-year-old wife or wait until she was older.

In Warren Jeffs’ account, he advised his brother not to wait, and told him, “There are no underage priesthood marriages.”

In another dictation, Warren Jeffs said he told then-Colorado City Mayor Richard Allred, “Do not compromise with the world or with our enemies. Do not allow businesses and other activities to come in that will bring corruption among the Priesthood people” — or Allred would lose priesthood himself.

In a later dictation, Warren Jeffs says he directed Allred to resign as mayor. The Justice Department lawyers showed the jury the date of the dictation corresponded to when Allred left office.