At one church service, an exact replica of Jeffs’ jail cell, complete with a toilet and plyboard cutout of Jeffs himself, had been strategically placed so worshippers had to pass by it to get inside.
“People are constantly told, ‘Well, he’ll be delivered soon, but you’re not faithful enough for his deliverance,” says Arnold Richter. “And so, even children run around thinking ‘...it’s because of my little sins that our prophet’s still in jail.’”
Richter has four kids of his own who often were scared by Jeffs’ Sunday sermon predictions of meteors and earthquakes. He has been out of Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) for six months - kicked out for questioning the prophet.
Richter was told to leave his wife and children before sundown, with no chance to say goodbye. But what he did shocked and maybe even intimidated church leadership. He stayed with his family. Richter still lives among FLDS friends and family, many of whom no longer speak to him.
Now considered an “apostate,” Richter says he’s numb to the bombshells falling every day in the courtroom in San Angelo, Texas. On Thursday, it took a jury of 10 women and two men just three and a half hours to find the so-called prophet guilty of raping two children, one 12 years old. The prosecution promises it will prove that the 55-year-old Jeffs took as many as two dozen child brides. The information is scheduled to be revealed in the next two days, during the penalty phase. Prosecutors say Jeffs broke up 300 families, ripping wives and children from “disobedient” men like Richter, and often giving them to other men. Many of the alleged offenders still live alone, puzzled as to what they did wrong. Some have died with a broken heart.
FLDS members are still in denial, convinced “the jail bars will open” and Jeffs will walk free among them again. That’s what he’s promised them. Indeed, a huge, H-shaped building called “the prophet’s house” is waiting for him on the Yearning for Zion ranch just outside Eldorado, Texas.
Carol McKinley is a freelance journalist who contributes to HDNet's World Report, PBS NewsHour, and Colorado Public News. She has covered the FLDS since Warren Jeffs came to power.