Could mass suicide be next for cult?
Erratic leader of Mormon sect poses a deadly risk to his Kootenay followers
Mass suicide. It's another reason beyond polygamy, child brides, rape and forced marriages that B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant should be paying attention to what is happening in the Kootenay community of Bountiful.

Warren Jeffs, the prophet, revelator and leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is becoming increasingly paranoid, erratic and convinced that he is God's "one mighty and strong" who will lead his followers to heaven, according to experts.

And they're interpreting it as a signal that the charismatic leader may soon instruct the more than 30,000 Mormon Fundamentalists living in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico to take their own lives in order to be "lifted up" to God's kingdom.

If the experts are right, it could mean people in Bountiful joining thousands of American FLDS members who will obediently follow his order.

Among those most concerned is author Jon Krakauer, who is perhaps better known for his book Into Thin Air, chronicling the deadliest year on Mount Everest.

Krakauer did four years of research before writing Under the Banner of Heaven, which focused on the breakaway Mormon group, and he remains in close touch with people who are inside and outside the church.

"I'm working actively to try to help throw a bright light on Warren Jeffs and that church. He is a really scary guy and I worry that if he is not brought under control there is going to be a mass suicide on the order of Waco [Texas]," Krakauer told me this week.

In 1993 a standoff between polygamist cult leader David Koresh and the FBI escalated into fiery destruction of Koresh's compound and the deaths of 80 people, including 17 children.

Despite his reference to Waco, Krakauer believes the fate of the FLDS followers is more likely to be a mass poisoning on a scale larger than that of Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, when 925 followers of American cult leader Jim Jones drank or were forced to drink cyanide-laced grape punch.

Krakauer says the spark for a mass suicide order could be a warrant issued for Jeffs's arrest. Utah Attorney-General Mark Shurtleff has promised to put Jeffs behind bars for having sex with under-age girls. But two weeks ago Shurtleff seemed to be backing off. He told me he doesn't want to "vilify" Jeffs and inflame the situation.

And even though he makes it clear in his book, and when we talked, that he abhors the sexual abuse within the FLDS communities, Krakauer says: "These fundamentalists are good people, but they have put their trust in an evil man."

Krakauer says FLDS members are so ready for the end of the world to come that anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of the estimated 30,000 would drink poison or blow their brains out if Jeffs asked them to.

"People should be really scared about what might happen."

Jeffs became head of North America's largest polygamist group nearly two years ago after his father, Rulon, died.

Since then Warren, 48, has purged anyone likely to threaten his control. Among those who have been pushed aside is Winston Blackmore, former bishop of Bountiful, who was replaced by Jimmy Oler.

Unlike more than 20 prominent men in the border-straddling communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., Jeffs has yet to take away Blackmore's property, wives and children, and Blackmore still holds sway with about half of Bountiful's 1,000 or more residents.

But it's a measure of Jeffs' control that over the past few months -- without protest -- he has excommunicated prominent men including Colorado City's mayor Dan Barlow and its police chief, taken their homes, wives and children, and redistributed them to his loyalists.

It's also important to understand that a principal tenet of the FLDS faith is that men must have three or more wives to enter God's Kingdom. Those wives can only be given to them by one of the church leaders. They cannot choose on their own. So by stripping men of their wives, Jeffs has condemned the men to eternal damnation.

Meanwhile, Jeffs has been urging his followers to max out their credit cards because they'll be "lifted up" before the bills are due.

And there are reports that girls in Hildale/Colorado City are being taught to kill small animals with their bare hands in preparation for the time when the men have taken all the weapons to defend the church against Gentiles -- anyone who isn't FLDS.

The excommunications, disappearances and redistribution of families has created chaos in the twin communities, but the ripple effects have been felt in Bountiful because of the family ties that bind the three towns.

Krakauer says that the situation in Bountiful is "not so acutely terrifying" as it is in Hildale/Colorado City because Blackmore has split the community.

Even so, Jeffs' followers make up nearly half the Kootenay community of about 1,000.

It's time for B.C.'s attorney-general, the RCMP, and the rest of us to realize that there's nothing benign about what's happening in Bountiful and things could get much worse.
Vancouver Sun
Originally published Friday, June 11, 2004