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Colorado City, Ariz. • The day after church leaders told their father and husband to leave home and repent for unnamed sins, the Holm family listened as their bishop said: "Warren Jeffs is your father now."

Lyle Jeffs, Warren's brother, stood next to the family's white baby grand piano as he took the three Holm wives' credit and bank cards. He said the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would pay their bills now.

"It was devastating to me," said daughter Heidi Holm, now 22. "I cried for a whole hour. I could not stop."

But she trusted her bishop, accepted that her father needed correction and put her energies into "keeping sweet" under the new family regime.

During the next nearly two years, she and her twin sister, Helen Holm, as well as their close friend Allie Steed would see their world grow smaller and darker as Warren Jeffs issued increasingly bizarre edicts from his Texas prison cell and Lyle Jeffs enforced them, dictating even the most intimate details of their lives in Colorado City, Ariz.

"It's like a cloud comes down around you," said Allie, now 23. "I couldn't even breathe."

The three eventually made the wrenching decision to leave the sect, joining hundreds of others who have been kicked out or abandoned the FLDS during two years of tumult in the polygamous group.

On a recent Saturday, weeks after leaving the cloistered group they grew up in, the three young women breathlessly sent text messages to new boyfriendsand laughed over curling irons and hair clips — little luxuries banned in the FLDS.

Their excitement is tempered by loss. They had happy childhoods, knew Warren Jeffs as a kind teacher and beloved prophet. Even after their departure, they still have trouble believing he's committed sex crimes. They've lost dozens of family members who are told to consider them apostates, the lowest of the low.

They were three friends faced with a choice — their faith and families or their futures.

Unworthy • The twins' father, Lorin Holm, was excommunicated Jan. 9, 2011— their younger sister's 16th birthday.

It happened on a Sunday as the family sat down to eat. He was called to the sect's massive meetinghouse in the middle of town, where a group of some 25 men surrounded him and told him he'd lost his priesthood and needed to "repent from afar."

Lorin came home hours later, gathered his family around him, and told them that, in the eyes of God, he was no longer their father.

And then he left.

The confiscation of the women's credit cards severed one more link to Lorin, who had provided well for his family with the proceeds from his water-purification company.

"They tell the women not to go on walks alone because sometimes the men will try and contact them," said Heidi, who told her story while wearing DC-brand boots and a fur-trimmed vest over her brown prairie dress. Bubbly and expressive, she opens her dark eyes wide and raises her eyebrows to make her points.

But as the months passed, Lyle Jeffs failed to keep his promise to pay the bills. The women soldiered on, making do and attending church meetings, where a man at the door would ask for the four-digit identifier assigned to each member of the congregation.

During the meetings, the bishop told the congregants it was their own unworthiness and imperfection that kept Warren Jeffs behind bars. The FLDS prophet was extradited last year to Texas, where he was convicted of sexually assaulting underage girls he took as polygamous wives.

FLDS leaders did not return a call seeking comment. Rod Parker, an attorney for the sect, declined to comment on the Holm family's account.

Heidi said if she missed her dad, or had problems, she was told to write to Warren Jeffs in prison, who would pray for her.

She never received a reply.

"It was kind of like writing into the unknown," she said.

Meanwhile, her father's faith was crumbling. Three months after he was tossed out of the FLDS, Lorin contacted his first wife and the twins' mother, also named Helen, from a home in Nevada where he was staying.

Though at first she didn't want to believe Warren Jeffs was anything other than a prophet, her husband's words touched something Helen had buried in the back of her mind.

"I knew that something wasn't right for 10 years, [but you have] children, family," she said. "Everyone, deep down, knows there's something wrong but they're not brave enough."

The wife and mother ultimately decided to do two radical things: Stay with her husband and return home to the twin border towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah. As the couple pulled into the red-rock desert community, FLDS sentries took note of their arrival. Sect leaders warned the rest of the family that Lorin and Helen — now apostates — were coming. When the couple reached their rambling white-brick home, Lorin's other two wives, along with their children, had fled.

"We were told, 'Leave them alone severely,' " said daughter Helen. " 'Do not associate with the apostate element.' "

The big house was empty. Lorin and his first wife were alone.

Lorin's other wives and children had moved to a house across town, with another man assigned as their "caretaker." Even his children with wife Helen were gone.

"I was ready to call the cops," said Helen, but her husband stopped her, assuring her their five children under age 18 would be returned to them — legally, they had to be.

Eventually, the younger children did come home, but with instructions to be "rebellious-sweet."

Lyle Jeffs had made Lorin and Helen's 17-year-old son a church elder to watch over the children while they lived with their apostate parents.

The day the kids came home, Helen tried to give her 6-year-old a bath, but her 16-year-old daughter stood in the way.

"She said, 'I'm not supposed to let you be alone with her,' " Helen recalled.

It took months to convince the children, especially the teens, that their parents weren't forsaken by God.

"I didn't ever have to deal with rebellious children. They were very easygoing," she said. "It's very interesting to deal with when you're faced with it for the first time."

'You can't even be human' • The twins lived as best they could while heeding instructions to reject and ignore their parents. Along with Allie, they worked at Most Wanted Jeans, a small clothing company in Hildale. Allie also worked at an espresso stand, saving to pay for braces. In their off-hours, they were "like three peas in a pod," Allie said, driving around town together.

They had grown up making their own clothes, growing much of their own food and being home-schooled for the past 10 years. Before that, Warren Jeffs had been Allie's teacher at Alta Academy, an FLDS school once located at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Allie remembered him as her teacher, giving her and her friends prizes if they were first back in their seats.

"That's all I knew of him," she said. Hearing the crimes he's committed, "it's just kind of hard to accept."

"I still don't know what to think about it," Helen said. "He was the sweetest, most kind person you'd want to meet when he was here."

They still had faith in Warren Jeffs, but FLDS life was weighing on them.

Lyle Jeffs had been interviewing every member, seeking out their sins and deciding who was worthy of what leaders called a "new United Order."

Announced at the start of 2011, the new order removed as many as 1,000 people who were told they weren't worthy to join the new church. While those people were allowed to stay in their homes with their families, they were considered "nonmembers," a lower class separate from those in the new order.

While Allie and Helen were admitted into the new order, Heidi was found lacking — apparently for an earlier, innocent relationship she'd had with a boy. She confessed and was eventually accepted.

But conditions grew worse. Lyle Jeffs, they said, began to issue directives from the pulpit. Unmarried women had to give up their cellphones, then any jobs where they dealt with the public. Those who were married couldn't have sex. Children had to give away or sell their bicycles, trampolines and other toys. Women couldn't be treated by male doctors or wear ribbons or flowered bobby pins. In fact, nothing with flowers on it.

Members had to wake up at 5 a.m. No naps. Women had to use reusable feminine hygiene products. Camping was forbidden. Members could clean house with only homemade soap and a bucket for rinse water. Only the right hand could touch that water.

"You can't even be human," Helen said.

Church security began watching her, she said, after she talked to her apostate mother during a visit to her workplace. And worshipping at the massive meetinghouse every Sunday, hearing the directives streaming from the pulpit, became almost physically painful.

"It started to feel like bullets in your chest," Helen said.

The quieter, more contemplative of the twins, she suffered under the new rules. A capable, high-tech seamstress and manager at work, Helen would come home and lie in her bed, staring at the ceiling. After the women were pushed out of their jobs, all three girls were relegated to making soap.

Thinking of her parents as apostates ate at Helen, but she yearned to be good, righteous and obedient to the faith. When she sought advice from church elders, they'd tell her to tune out conflicting emotions.

"I think that's why I can't cry anymore," Helen said. "So many times I wished I could just go to my grave."

Leaving the fold •The three friends were eager to marry and start their own lives. But no members of the FLDS have been allowed to marry since Warren Jeffs' arrest in 2006.

"I would always wonder why I was never so blessed as to get married," Heidi said. Now, though, she knows that if she had been married with children, it would have been more difficult to leave.

There are other indignities for married couples: Allie's sister was tossed from the new United Order for being treated by a male doctor. Her nonmember status combined with a new edict to keep people of opposite genders away from one another means she is allowed to care only for her young sons, not her own 1-year-old daughter, Allie said.

Eventually, more cracks started to show in all three girls' resolve to stay true to the FLDS church. Instead of following the rules that required all members of the new United Order to go to the bishop's storehouse for everything they needed, they drove to Walmart to buy shoes and disposable feminine hygiene products.

In September, they hatched a plan for the twins to see their mother for her birthday: Allie dropped them off, but stayed in the car and kept driving around town so everyone would think the friends still were with her.

Another time, all three girls snuck in the back door while mother Helen was playing piano.

"I said, 'Give your mother a hug,' " Allie said.

"And I said, 'Can I do that?' " Heidi said. She could and she did — even though her mother was an apostate.

Heidi reached her breaking point about a month ago after a marathon church meeting in which Warren Jeffs' "revelations from God" were recited for about seven hours.

One edict in particular broke her resolve: the command not to "have sympathy for apostates," she said.

"It was like a knife in my heart," she said. "I ran away."

When she rejoined her parents, Heidi said, "I felt so at peace. I felt like I was lifted up."

Her sister Helen wasn't ready to go yet. She was still trying to help another friend leave. But she did do something that drew the faithful's ire: She accepted a car from her mom, who had previously helped her secure credit to finance a new Buick.

When her mother decided to leave the sect and stay with her father, however, the younger Helen gave back the car to sever the apostate connection.

Her mother pushed her to keep it, parking it at the caretaker's house.

In early November, after her sister was gone, daughter Helen relented and took the Buick.

"People yelled 'apostate' at me," she said. And when Heidi left, the bullying increased. Helen was carrying a load from her car one day when she felt a torrent of water soak her. It was her half-sister with a pitcher. " 'Did you wake from the nightmare?' " the half-sister asked.

That did it for Helen. She decided to join her twin.

Taken away •Allie had remained faithful to the church. About two weeks ago, she got the call she'd been waiting on for months: It was her own father, who also had been excommunicated in August 2011. She'd been begging church leaders to let her speak with him.

He asked if she'd like to visit him in Kansas. She was elated to hear from him, but feared the trip was engineered by church leaders to remove her from Colorado City indefinitely for breaking the new church rules.

When her father arrived to pick her up,he had aged. His hair was grayer. She hugged him, then took pictures with her mother, brothers, sisters. "I just had a feeling it was going to be the last time I'd see them."

Allie and her sister got in the car with him, but somewhere around Albuquerque, N.M., he asked for their phones, saying he wanted them to give up "worldly possessions."

"After he asked for the phones, I said, 'What happened to you, father?' " Allie said. She refused to give it up, instead sending a frantic text to Helen and Heidi, who made plans to return her to Colorado City.

Allie arrived in southwest Kansas with her father and sister at a house, where seven FLDS men were living while working construction jobs. She and her sister were shown to a near-empty room. She'd brought her sewing machine, but had no fabric or patterns.

With nothing else to do, the Steed sisters turned to something forbidden: Watching movies on their phones.

The twins arrived two days later in Lorin's Escalade, and the Steed sisters slipped out while the men were away at work.

"It was mixed emotions because here I was leaving my mother, brothers, sisters, everyone," Allie said. "But I've got to move on. Here I go."

Once they were hundreds of miles away, Allie called her father to say she'd gone. He said she could pick up her things — her mother would leave them on the other side of the fence at their Hildale home.

Living their lives •One of trio's first orders of business after leaving the FLDS was to look up some young men they'd known since childhood. The men were working construction in North Dakota, but they renewed a friendship over phone calls and texts and recently met them in Salt Lake City.

People stared at the girls' long hair. Although they still wear their signature FLDS prairie dresses at home, they changed into conservative mainstream skirts and tops for a trip to Salt Lake City, where they checked out City Creek Center, The Gateway and South Towne Center malls. The men bought them curling irons, then they watched the movie "Red Dawn." It was a bit too violent for Allie.

The three women are not sure what's next. They're living with Lorin and mother Helen, helping them keep the house clean. Allie and Heidi have their GEDs, so they hope to get jobs; Helen was sick on test day and doesn't have hers yet. They plan to draw unemployment, for now, and hope their budding relationships lead to families of their own one day.

"All my other friends have been married for years. I want my own babies," Allie said. In a break from FLDS tradition, where a dozen children isn't uncommon, Helen wants to have two kids.

"I'm going to go live my life," Heidi said. "I can't live that way. I'm just going to go live my life and be happy."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Holm father wins custody battle

Lorin Holm won custody Friday of his eight minor children from his two wives who remain in the FLDS. Fifth District Judge James Shumate ordered the children, ages 3 through 16, to be dropped off at Holm's house no later than 6 p.m. Saturday, said attorney Roger Hoole.

"Nobody wants to take the kids from the mothers, but the mothers are just not able to protect their children right now," Hoole said. Though the two women are "very good mothers," Hoole argued in court documents that Holm's daughters could be married underage and his sons were at risk of expulsion from their families.

The children's mothers will have visitation three times a week for two hours, Holm said — though Shumate warned both sides to avoid the topic of religion.

"I'm pretty excited," Holm said, who filed for custody in September 2011. "If we don't stand up for this thing, who's going to?"

An attorney for the mothers could not immediately be reached for comment.

Lindsay Whitehurst