ELDORADO, Texas — Until he was about 10, life had been good to Roy Jeffs, son of the president and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Despite not having TV or toys — among the rules his father, Warren Jeffs, put in place after becoming leader — he still had a family and big family events.
“I had a great life,” Roy Jeffs said, adding that it was full of happy memories.
“With my mom, we used to tend the garden together, we would play games with my dad for a couple hours, then have a big dinner," Roy Jeffs said. "Every once in a while he’d throw a party.”
► April 4: Outsiders, FLDS battle for control of towns Warren Jeffs left behind
► April 1: Yearning for Zion Ranch remains in limbo 10 years after FLDS raid
► March 30: 7 documentaries, movies tackled life in FLDS church under Jeffs
Things started to change once his father began to separate him from the rest of the family and community, a tactic that Warren Jeffs commonly used to punish members of the polygamous breakaway sect of Mormons whom he said needed to repent.
Roy Jeffs first was sent away when he was 12, along with his mother, Gloria Barlow, and about seven more of Warren Jeffs’ wives. At 14, Roy Jeffs was sent to a ranch in Wyoming, this time without his mother, while the rest of his family lived on the Yearning For Zion Ranch about 5 miles northeast of Eldorado, which had a little less than 2,000 residents at the time.
“I didn’t have other kids to grow up with in some of those crucial years,” Roy Jeffs said. He has 54 full and half siblings.
Eventually, the teen received a call from Warren Jeffs, who was incarcerated at the time, telling him his punishment had ended. He returned to YFZ Ranch but was allowed to stay only three weeks because he confessed to his father that he was attracted to some of his father's wives — those who were also 14 years old.
Warren Jeffs has up to 80 wives, according to some estimates. His wives include those of his father, Rulon Jeffs, because he married all but two of his father's surviving plural wives when Rulon Jeffs died in 2002; they numbered about 20.
Not until Roy Jeffs left his father's church in 2014, the first of Warren Jeffs’ children to do so, did he realize that his father always knew what he was thinking because the boy was always confessing — not because Warren Jeffs could read minds as he told church members.
The confessions were necessary because “God revealed to him all of the details of your life,” Roy Jeffs said of his father. If you didn’t confess, you weren’t being honest, and “that in itself is a sin. You've got to do it as an insurance policy.”
Warren Jeffs was the second sole leader of the FLDS church, which traces its roots to a 1912 statement published by Lorin Wolley, who went into hiding when the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy in September 1890. Before Rulon Jeffs assumed leadership of the FLDS church in 1986, it had been led by a group of seven men known as the Council of Friends.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not the only Mormon denomination that believes in plural marriage, which polygamists call celestial marriage. But it is the only one with a compound that Texas authorities raided April 4, 2008, taking 437 children into state custody after the Texas police received a tip claiming sexual abuse within the isolated religious sect.
In April 2013, the state of Texas seized the 1,691-acre property, about 250 miles southwest of Dallas, after church leaders did not contest a forfeiture order. It now is valued at about $25 million, and the Schleicher County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for upkeep of the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
The 2008 raid on the YFZ Ranch occurred two days before what Mormons popularly consider the real day of Jesus' birth, April 6.
The chaos of the raid, which separated family members, struck a familiar chord with Roy Jeffs.
“We had already been put through that kind of situation by my dad,” he said.
The FLDS church also has small settlements in Canada in a town called Bountiful, British Columbia; near Crawford, Colo.; near Las Vegas; near Mancos, Colo.; near Pioche, Nev.; and near Pringle, S.D., the Deseret (Utah) News reported in 2008. In the aftermath of the ranch raid and squabbles with Utah state officials about managing a land trust that encompasses much of Hildale, Utah, church members now appear to have scattered more widely.
In December 2008, Roy Jeffs was able to reunite with his family, returning to the YFZ Ranch when all of Warren Jeffs’ family members were sent there.
By 2010, the teen was sent to the twin communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, where the FLDS church has its headquarters more than 250 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. In 2012, he was sent out to work.
“I was isolated from all of the family after that," Roy Jeffs said.
By the time he left the church, he had not been allowed to see or speak with his mother for two years. Now, they have not communicated for six years.
Roy Jeffs, now 24, does see a benefit to the raid that splintered his family.
His father wouldn't be in prison without it. Evidence collected in the raid included audio tapes of Warren Jeffs having sex with several underage girls, and those tapes helped a San Angelo, Texas, jury sentence Warren Jeffs to life in prison for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl that he claimed were his spiritual wives.
Warren Jeffs, now 62, was sentenced in April 2011 to serve at least 45 years in prison for those crimes, the only charges in three states that put him behind bars for decades. He had been put on trial in 2007 in St. George, Utah, but the Utah Supreme Court reversed his conviction, and he faced charges in Arizona that ultimately were dismissed.
The man who still contends that he is leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will be eligible for parole on July 22, 2038, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is now incarcerated in The Powledge Unit, a state prison in Palestine, Texas.
The commotion of the 2008 raid briefly loosened Warren Jeffs’ grip over church members because everyone at the YFZ Ranch was scattered around Texas for months. Warren Jeffs had not banned Internet use — yet — but Roy Jeffs said it was closely monitored before the raid and very few people would have had phones with Internet access.
That changed after the raid.
It “definitely opened our eyes to what the world was really like and that peace and happiness exist out here," Roy Jeffs said. "Without it, I don’t think this many people would’ve left.”
Knowing how many members the secretive polygamist Mormon sect has and exactly how many people have left is difficult.
In 2011 after Warren Jeffs' sentencing, The Associated Press said the Fundamentalist Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints had 10,000 members. In 2015, Utah private investigator Sam Bower told Al Jazeera America that 500 to 1,000 members had left in the previous one or two years and he thought that about 10,000 were remaining.
A picture from the Creekers Foundation that shows a meeting of the Girlfriend Club of former FLDS women had more than 75 in attendance in Hildale. The foundation that provides support to ex-members alludes to the Short Creek area that the incorporated cities of Hildale and Colorado City were carved from, and the area has been the base of the FLDS church for more than a century.
On July 26, 1953, in what became known as the Short Creek raid, authorities raided the then-unincorporated community on the Arizona side of the state border, arresting 122 accused polygamists. Children were placed in state custody and some never returned to their families.
Life magazine photos, particularly of the children crying as they were taken from their mothers 65 years ago, turned the public against interfering with the polygamist community until the mid 2000s after Warren Jeffs assumed control.
Roy Jeffs' brother, Raymond Jeffs, 23, has a tough time seeing the 2008 raid in an entirely positive light.
Raymond Jeffs agrees that the opportunity to be in the outside world showed them that everybody outside the church wasn't terrible.
But the raid also was traumatizing, turning the children’s strictly structured lives into chaos and proving Warren Jeffs’ warning that the rest of the world wanted to persecute and ruin the church.
“It was scary. It was uncertain,” Raymond Jeffs said. “We were told the world wanted to kill us, that people wanted to destroy us and our moral values.”
Raymond Jeffs was one of the children removed from the compound 10 years ago. He left the church in September 2015 at age 21, the fifth of six children from his family to do so.
His younger brother, Issac Jeffs, also was removed during the raid and since has left the FLDS church, joining Roy, Raymond and their three sisters. Isaac Jeffs' decision to leave was captured in an Aug. 28 episode of A&E Networks' Escaping Polygamy.
“Growing up the way we did, we were very protected,” Raymond Jeffs said. “We didn't have access to anything outside of the land there and only really knew what we were taught by Father and the people he had telling us.”
► April 2017: Forgotten FLDS women learn to heal from the inside out
► February 2017: Mormon doctrine leaves potential for 'eternal polygamy'
Government involvement would not have stopped church members from doing exactly as their leader said, Warren Jeffs' sons said.
From his jail cell in San Angelo before his Texas trial, Warren Jeffs wrote to his followers:
Know I am soon to judge all in government positions of unrighteous persecution against my people, to show my will concerning present court persecuting power; which judge is now to be of my holy judging upon her and others who have mocked my holy religious and pure Holy Law of Celestial Plural Marriage in open court: let all such proceedings cease now!
In 2011, the FLDS church printed the revelation in a book. It was one of thousands that Warren Jeffs said the Lord Jesus Christ had given him through the years as the church's prophet since his father’s 2002 death.
Warren Jeffs instilled in FLDS members the belief that disobeying his orders would mean eternal damnation, causing a constant fear of being unworthy, Raymond Jeffs said.
After the raid, Raymond Jeffs was sent to San Angelo's Fort Concho National Historic Landmark and then Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in Amarillo, one of 17 locations where the children lived immediately afterward.
► January 2017: 'Sister Wives' polygamous family turned away at Supreme Court
► January 2017: FLDS food-stamp fraud defendants enter guilty pleas
When Carmen Dusek of San Angelo first heard of the raid, she was told that 51st District Judge Barbara Walther was looking to round up several women lawyers to represent 25 girls from the ranch. As that number sharply rose, Dusek was appointed as one of two coordinating attorneys for Texas' largest child-custody removal to date.
She and fellow coordinating attorney Randall Stout “struggled to get consistent information and answers from CPS in those first 10 to 14 days,” Dusek said of Texas Child Protective Services officials. “CPS was trying to manage a case on a scale no one ever anticipated.
"We didn’t really know who many of the children were or who their parents or alleged parents were, and CPS was dealing with political pressure because the case was extraordinarily expensive for the State of Texas,” Dusek said.
The San Angelo mass care event cost the state $9.1 million, according to a report from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Initially, the FLDS children were treated as a group in court hearings. Once all the mothers were separated, except for those nursing children younger than 1, and the children were sent to foster facilities throughout the state, status hearings began for individual children or maternal sibling groups.
But on May 22, 2008, a Texas court of appeals found that Family and Protective Services officials did not meet the burden of proof required for emergency removal of the children.
“The only evidence presented by DFPS that any pubescent girls were in danger was the 'pervasive system of belief' among the residents of the ranch,” according to a departmental report on the ruling. “The court wrote that a belief system by itself does not put children in physical danger.”
The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the decision a week later.
Yet “when interviewing girls at the ranch, DFPS investigators noted a consistent pattern of girls reporting that no age was too young to be married,” the department's report also stated.
► October 2016: Utah-Ariz. stateline towns see new life after Warren Jeffs turmoil
► October 2016: FLDS bishop testifies about communal beliefs
In the end, the Family and Protective Services report noted 12 confirmed cases of sexual abuse. Two girls were married at age 12; three at 13; two at 14; and five at age 15.
Texas changed its law last year to prohibit a person younger than 18 from getting married without a judge's consent. Previously, a parent could provide the consent for children ages 16 and 17, and a judge could approve a child of any age to marry.
After the Texas Supreme Court decision, all of the children were reunited with their parents by June 4, 2008. Only one child was removed again: Merrianne Jessop, whom Warren Jeffs married at age 12 and whom Dusek would represent.
Her case was a major factor in Warren Jeffs’ life sentence. Found in the YFZ temple vault were audio tapes of Warren Jeffs raping the preteen just weeks after her 12th birthday as well as Warren Jeffs having a group sex session with “at least a dozen underage girls,” Dusek said.
Red-haired Merrianne, now about 24 years old and not able to be contacted for this story, lived in foster care for a year but never asked Dusek to take her home. However, she did ask Dusek to get permission from the judge for her to go with her foster family to Tennessee for Thanksgiving and to jump on the trampoline in a neighbor’s yard.
The trampoline request never came to fruition, but the girl did travel to Tennessee for the holiday and was able to go to Dollywood, where she rode a roller coaster.
“She had that opportunity to have an experience that she would not have otherwise had within the FLDS faith,” Dusek said.
Merrianne's was the last FLDS abuse case to be resolved, and the court granted guardianship to a cousin no longer living within the FLDS community. However, by August 2009 Merrianne had returned to the Yearning For Zion Ranch.
Dusek said she believes Merrianne will be safe as long as Warren Jeffs is in prison. But she wonders what will happen when he dies.
► August 2016: 3 in polygamous sect rearrested in Utah food-stamp case
► July 2016: Ex-polygamous sect members sue Warren Jeffs, former lawyers
For Roy Jeffs to leave the FLDS church, “It definitely took a couple of years of thinking about it before I got the nerve to do it," he said.
At the time, Roy Jeffs was working for a church-owned company building a hotel in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. He hadn’t talked to his family in two years, didn’t get along with any of the other men on the job and hadn’t been paid for his work in months.
“I felt super alone,” he said.
He wanted to stay, hoping Warren Jeffs eventually would let him be with his mother again. But such a decision might not be permanent.
“He can decide I’m not worthy at any point and take her away again,” Roy Jeffs said.
Roy Jeffs had grown up in a culture that emphasized wanting a family. Then he thought about his own life.
“If I finally get married here in the FLDS, I will live in constant fear of my dad taking my family away because he’d done that to almost every man,” Roy Jeffs said.
Yet he dreaded leaving the church.
“I genuinely believed I would be destroyed because my dad told me that constantly,” Roy Jeffs said.
A shot at happiness before death outweighed eternal damnation.
"I still believed in my dad, believed in some way he was who he said he was,” Roy Jeffs said.
Warren Jeffs said Jesus himself gave him his 854 pages of revelations that he wrote down in the San Angelo jail as the prophet of the FLDS church.
Those revelations, Jesus Christ Message to All Nations, were the book the church published in 2011. In 2013, the church published a second edition, adding more than 100 pages of new revelations.
“I had seen some of the Texas trial evidence and kind of brushed it off as fabrication,” Roy Jeffs said.
► March 2016: Jury finds polygamous towns discriminate against nonbelievers
► January 2016: Ex-FLDS official felt wrath after turning on Warren Jeffs
However, that belief changed after his three sisters left the church. They told Roy Jeffs that their father had sexually abused them.
“The kind of pedestal I had him on kind of disintegrated,” he said.
Roy Jeffs said his father also had sexually abused him, but he hadn’t thought of it that way until after hearing his sisters talk about their own experiences.
► January 2016: Sect, towns both claim religious discrimination in FLDS trial
► September 2015: Hundreds gather for Hildale, Utah, flood victims' memorial
“All of those years I had thought that was my fault because of the way he did it," Roy Jeffs said. "Basically, he was like ‘Don’t ever do this,’ then he touched me.”
“I felt like I was, somehow I had done something wrong from that early memory,” Roy Jeffs said.
The sisters’ abuse also was the reason Raymond Jeffs left the church, he said.
► July 2015: Exiled polygamists gather to celebrate 4th of July
► June 2015: Imprisoned polygamous sect leader's car, items auction for $80K
► June 2013: Polygamists find promise in Supreme Court decisions
Leaving was, “basically like going into a whole new world,” Raymond Jeffs said. It was “the freedom you never had: able to make your own decisions, do whatever you want without worrying about what people are going to say, not living in fear of being corrected or judged for what I do.
“I never want to go back to that lifestyle," Raymond Jeffs said. "I’m 100 times happier since leaving.”
Follow Krista Johnson on Twitter: @KristaJ1993