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Schism, New Indictments Follow Polygamist Leader's Conviction

A letter sent by email and snail mail urges the followers of polygamist leader and convicted pedophile Warren Jeffs to "come clean ... or you are going down with the wicked and the damned."

It's signed by two former leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, including former Jeffs spokesman Willie Jessop and William E. Jessop (no relation to Willie), who some consider the rightful successor to Jeffs. The message is the first visible sign of a possible schism in the polygamist faith in the wake of Jeffs' conviction in Texas for sexual assault of "wives" 12 and 15.

Also this week, criminal indictments were announced for two FLDS members who are public officials in Colorado City, Ariz., where the FLDS Church is based. The two are charged with misusing public funds and participating in "a criminal syndicate."

The letter directly addresses FLDS members in general and Lyle Jeffs, in particular. Jeffs is the brother of the convicted FLDS prophet and is believed to be running the day-to-day affairs of the group while Warren Jeffs serves a life sentence in Texas.

"There is responsibility to see to it there is no iniquity in the church, and to protect the virtue, and values of our church," the letter says. "You all have had five long years and numerous opportunities to clean this immoral mess up, and you have not!"

Lyle Jeffs' phone number in the FLDS stronghold of Hildale, Utah, is now disconnected.

In an interview with NPR, Willie Jessop confirmed the authenticity of the letter. He provided a copy in a text message while he was traveling between Texas and Utah. Veteran polygamy reporter Ben Winslow of Fox 13 News in Salt Lake City obtained a photocopy and has posted it here.

Winslow reports that Lyle Jeffs sent "a text" to the FLDS faithful, instructing them to "pay no heed" to the Jessops' letter.

"The purpose of the letter is to bring accountability of the cover-up of what Mr. Jeffs had done, in private, in betraying the people," Willie Jessop says. "The leadership of the church has systematically covered up the immoral conduct of Warren Jeffs."

An estimated 10,000 FLDS members live in polygamous communities in seven states and Canadian provinces, from British Columbia to Texas.

The letter claims that William E. Jessop was named by Jeffs, 55, as his successor during a January 2007 jailhouse confession in Utah, in which Jeffs renounced his leadership position and confessed to being "the greatest of all sinners."

"We tell you as brethren, no one has the right to cover up immoral conduct,no matter who they think they are if they are involved in evil and wrongdoing," the letter says, using bold type for the middle phrase.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that William E. Jessop has been holding his own Sunday church meetings in Hildale, Utah. Jessop claimed control of the faith's corporate entity in documents filed with the Utah Department of Corporations in March, but let pass an Aug. 3 deadline for finalizing his claim.

Willie Jessop says many FLDS members still don't know about Jeffs' conviction and sentence, and the evidence of sexual assault of underage girls.

"There were severe repercussions if anyone attended the trial," Jessop says. "There are severe repercussions if anyone listens to any sort of televised reports or any reports in any form."

Those who still might get the news, Jessop adds, are told it's fabricated.

Both Willie and William E. Jessop were excommunicated by Jeffs while he awaited trial in Texas. Jeffs used his phone privileges in jail to continue to administer the faith.

Willie Jessop insists neither he nor William E. Jessop were aware of underage marriages in the faith, despite convictions of other FLDS men on child sex charges.

"It was just hand-selected people that could be aware of those [practices]," Willie Jessop says. "Even the general population of his own faithful people would be very offended and be very upset if they were aware of what he was doing."

Jessop does not deny the common practice of polygamy among the FLDS, who consider multiple marriages a divine duty that guarantees salvation in the afterlife.

But the claim that the underage marriages were not well known seems dubious given the fact that former FLDS members complained about underage marriages for years. Church records indicated Jeffs had 24 wives under the age of 17 and that their parents knew about and approved of the marriages.

The church records were seized during a 2008 raid on an FLDS ranch and Temple in Eldorado, Texas. They also indicate that underage girls were imported from an FLDS community in Bountiful, B.C., and married to Jeffs and other members, with the full knowledge of their parents.

Willie Jessop also vigorously defended Jeffs and the faith after the raid.

Jessop says "hundreds" of FLDS members are lining up behind William E. Jessop but that's a difficult claim to verify. The faithful shun media, as do church leaders loyal to Jeffs.

The polygamous church that later became known as the FLDS started on the Utah-Arizona border in the 1930's. An earlier schism resulted in a new settlement just down the road of polygamists who do not avoid outsiders, who believe in education for girls as well as boys, and who include women who own and run their own businesses.

The "Centennial Park" group, as it's called, says it has never tolerated underage marriages.

Control of the FLDS group has more than spiritual meaning. A communal FLDS trust has owned land and businesses valued at $110 million. A Utah court seized control of the trust in 2005 but FLDS leaders are trying to regain control.

The felony indictments are not public but statements issued by Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith, and a search warrant affidavit that is public, claim that Town Manager David Darger and Fire Chief Jacob Barlow misused public funds and participated in "a criminal syndicate." Darger was an official in the Fire Department at the time of the alleged crimes.

Colin Campbell, an attorney for Darger, told the Salt Lake Tribune, "We don't believe that Mr. Darger has committed any crimes."

Tribune polygamy beat reporter Lindsey Whitehurst also quotes Barlow's attorney. "This case will be Exhibit One as an example of government abuse of the process," says Mike Piccarreta, who has also defended Warren Jeffs, "and is another example of Mohave County and the state of Arizona's war on Colorado City."

Arizona seized control of the Colorado City School District in 2005 in response to complaints that the FLDS members in charge of the district were misusing school funds and creating unnecessary jobs for church members.

Both Utah and Arizona have sought decertification of officers in the Town Marshall's office for practicing polygamy.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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