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The man who has been the public voice of Utah's highest-profile polygamous sect said Thursday he can no longer stand up for jailed leader Warren S. Jeffs.
"I came to the point where Mr. Jeffs' conduct was indefensible and have chosen not to defend it publicly or privately," said Willie R. Jessop.
Authorities have accused Jeffs, 55, of spiritually marrying six underage girls, some as young as 12. He is facing sexual-assault and bigamy charges connected with two of those girls and is in a Texas jail awaiting trial.
A challenger to Jeffs, Jessop said, presents an option for members who remain faithful to FLDS principles. William E. Jessop, who is Willie R. Jessop's distant relative, claimed Thursday that leaders are using threats and intimidation to keep members loyal.
"If members of the church act inconsistent with the instructions of Warren S. Jeffs, they are subject to being immediately cast out of the church," wrote William E. Jessop, 41, in documents filed with the Utah Division of Corporations and Commercial Code.
William E. Jessop is a former high-ranking FLDS bishop who draws his leadership claim from a series of 2007 jailhouse phone calls in which Jeffs named him as the sect's "true prophet."
Willie R. Jessop is a longtime Jeffs bodyguard and supporter. He emerged as a church spokesman during a massive 2008 raid on the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. More than 400 children were taken into protective custody though they were later returned to their parents and authorities seized hundreds of boxes of evidence. In the crush of media attention during and after the raid, Willie R. Jessop presented the FLDS to the world and defended its people to dozens of outlets, from The New York Times to Oprah.
"I loved who Mr. Jeffs was, when I thought I knew who he was and who he stood for," Willie R. Jessop said Thursday. "But what came to light in Texas is morally indefensible."
If other members of the FLDS saw the evidence filtering out, most of which has yet to be made public, he believes they wouldn't support Jeffs.
"I don't know of anyone I associate with within the church [that] would defend or endorse what Mr. Jeffs has done," he said.
Jeffs relinquished legal power over the church in 2007 after he was convicted on accomplice-to-rape charges in Utah. But this year, after his conviction was overturned, Jeffs reclaimed his position as leader of the Corporation of the President. He also excommunicated more than 30 people, including top leaders.
But Willie R. Jessop said he wasn't one of them, and he still considers himself an FLDS member.
"I was given an option. I was not run out of the church. I was told to clean up my act," he said. But he added he'd learned too much about the evidence authorities uncovered during the Texas raid.
Challenger William E. Jessop, he said, "seeks to govern out of love instead of through fear." But the rival's case for leadership hasn't reached many members because leaders have restricted access to the Internet during the past two months, Willie R. Jessop said.
Videos of Jeffs' conversations released by authorities are now available on YouTube.
In them, Jeffs called himself the "most wicked man" and pointed instead to William E. Jessop, who was then the high-ranking bishop of the group's home base of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Jeffs called William E. Jessop on Jan. 24, 2007, telling him: "I know of your ordination, that you are the key holder, and I have sent a note with my signature so that there is no question."
William E. Jessop began to welcome back men who had been cast out by Jeffs, according to Willie R. Jessop, but Jeffs made the pronouncement just before a suicide attempt, and he later apparently retracted it. William E. Jessop was himself excommunicated within months and went into hiding, Willie R. Jessop said.
He re-emerged this year, and on March 28, he filed documents seeking to remove Jeffs from the FLDS Corporation of the President. He is being represented by Salt Lake City attorney Mark James.
Jeffs' supporters fought back, denying anyone had made William E. Jessop president. Four church leaders stated in affidavits that they saw a congregation of 4,000 FLDS members "unanimously stand and raise their hands and voices" in support of Jeffs, both in February and April.
They also said a group of 2,000 FLDS men voted unanimously to "uphold and sustain" Jeffs on April 10.
The struggle comes as FLDS leaders fight for control of the $110 million property trust that contains nearly all the land and homes in Hildale and Colorado City but was taken over by the state of Utah in 2005. A federal judge ruled it should go back to the sect, but an appeals court decided Wednesday to keep control with the state, as it considers an appeal of that decision.
"If the membership of the church declines to sustain me as the president of the church, that, obviously, is their prerogative," William E. Jessop wrote. "The membership of the church should be provided the opportunity, however, after first having had the opportunity to understand all the relevant facts and not be closed under secrecy."
FLDS attorney Rod Parker declined to comment.
Inside • Warren Jeffs gets new jail digs
Texas officials have moved polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs to a jail closer to the Yearning for Zion Ranch. › A11
The Utah Division of Corporations and Commercial Code has placed a hold on William E. Jessop's papers seeking to assume control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' legal entity. When that hold expires Monday, the conflict between the two leaders will likely be headed for a courtroom.