SALT LAKE CITY—Damned by his religion, denied by his family and left with nowhere else to go, the teenager slept in a cold tool shed just steps from a company owned by his relatives.
They went home at night to warm, cozy beds while Tom Sam Steed stole bread, cereal and nutrition bars from a gas station just to survive. He tried, several times, to kill himself, convinced that he was worth nothing.
His salvation came when he got a job cleaning carpets and finally left the control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its leader, Warren Jeffs.
Former members describe a religion that thrives on domination. Every detail of their life was scripted—from plural marriages to what they could wear, who they could associate with and what job they could have. In the last 4 1/2 years, more than 400 teenage boys have been excommunicated, many for seemingly minor infractions such as watching a movie or talking to a girl.
Former church members suspect something else is causing the banishment of young men. In a polygamous community, there are only so many women to go around. Older men don’t want to compete with young men for wives. The boys have to go.
Now, they have been thrust into a society they have been taught is evil. They are homeless, uneducated, confused and unprepared for a world where they can make their own choices.
They are lost boys.
Leaving “worse than murder”
Sweaty and out of breath, four teenage boys barge into the kitchen for glasses of water after an exhausting game of basketball. They tease each other about who won, then stretch out on couches and chairs.
In many ways, they are typical teenagers. They brag about souped-up cars, listen to rapper Eminem, admire supermodel Heidi Klum, have seen the “The Matrix” multiple times and want to go to college. But ask them how many brothers and sisters they have and it’s clear that these teens have had unusual lives. Seventeen brothers and sisters for one, 21 for another. Another lost count after 300. Most of their fathers have at least two wives.
Almost all 11 boys gathered this day grew up in the “creek”—the twin FLDS communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where most of the estimated 10,000 residents are church members, the largest polygamous group in the West.
The FLDS is different from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has disavowed polygamy and denounced the FLDS.
Living in the creek, along the Utah-Arizona border, means total submission to the church. Jeffs, whom many former members accuse of brainwashing, directs all parts of his members’ lives. The church, through its charitable trust, owns the land its members build homes on, arranges marriages and requires members to wear long underwear at all times.
Movies and television are banned. Basketball and football were taken away a few years ago, the boys say. Wives can be assigned to different men if the church orders it. Most members don’t attend school past the eighth grade.
“We’re taught the only way into heaven is through this church,” said Steed. “If you leave, that’s worse than murder.” But this restricted life is the only one they have ever known.
Some boys ran away or left after a family member did. Others were ousted for violations such as wanting to go to public school, something that Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney and church spokesman, denies.
Parker said it was hard to generalize about the boys, but noted they were not involved with the church anymore because of the choices they made.
“These people are minimizing the reasons for their not being part of the church anymore,” he said. “They tend to be juvenile delinquents, they tend to have criminal problems, they have drug problems. They have all kinds of things going on with their lives that are incompatible with the church.”
Once out of the creek, the boys mostly roamed southern Utah, living in flophouses or their cars, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, meeting up with other excommunicated members.
They can’t return to their families because church members are forbidden from associating with them. Sometimes, parents secretly send money. But mostly they are on their own, homeless, some as young as 13.
Weeding out Competition
Three years ago, Shem Fischer and his brother, Dan Fischer, helped a few excommunicated boys find jobs and an education in Salt Lake City.
Former members of the FLDS church, the brothers knew the struggles that the boys faced.
Dan Fischer, founder of Ultradent, a Utah-based dental products manufacturer, never lived in the creek, but was once a believer and at one time had three wives. Shem Fischer grew up in the creek and left three years ago at age 33.
He never had reason to question the church until he started working outside the community, doing sales and marketing for his family’s cabinetry and interior design business.
The FLDS doesn’t believe that man landed on the moon. When Fischer learned the truth, he was embarrassed: “It makes you really start questioning what else you’ve been duped on.”
Fischer complained to the church after his father’s three wives were taken away. Fischer, a member of the church’s board of directors at the time, was told by the board to leave.
His mother still lives in the creek, but mail and phone calls from Fischer are blocked. He was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral in February 2001.
After the brothers helped a few boys, they started getting calls from others who had been kicked out and were sometimes dropped off in nearby communities with just the clothes on their backs. Word got around that the brothers wanted to help, and soon more than 400 excommunicated boys had been identified.
“The older men don’t want to compete with the young bucks. Sheer math will tell you a certain amount of them have to go,” said Shem Fischer, who is related to several of the boys.
There were so many, the brothers knew that Ultradent and its nonprofit Diversity Foundation couldn’t support them all. Now they have turned to the public for help with food, housing, furniture, clothing and mentors they hope will give the boys a new life.
“I hope that they can see they are not trash. They are valuable human citizens,” Shem Fischer said. “They can prove FLDS wrong. They will not go to the bottom of society. They will not be damned.”
Memories of childhood lost
Sitting inside Dan Fischer’s guest house, the boys compared stories on why they left and even joke about polygamy. Carl Ream, 16, said he only wanted one wife because women were too expensive. His friends laughed.
They curse too much, make up silly names for each other and play a fierce game of hackie sack.
But, when they are alone, they speak of a childhood stolen. Richard Gilbert, 19, wishes that he could have played Little League baseball.
Emotion rarely slips into John Jessop’s conversation. The tough-talking 15-year-old was kicked out of FLDS at 13 and sent back by a court order when he was charged with possessing marijuana. He was kicked out again just days ago for wearing short sleeves, he said.
“It wasn’t really a happy childhood,” John said. “I’m never going to go back there again.” He hopes to be adopted.
Steed, a tall and gangly 19-year-old with faraway brown eyes, was part of the FLDS church and under Jeffs’ control in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. He left at 15 when he was put on religious probation for watching a PG-13 movie. But he still found himself drawn to the church and wanted to return. His relatives wouldn’t let him live with them because he wasn’t in good standing with the church. He worked for his family’s excavation company, earning $5.15 an hour when they paid him. At night, he said he slept in a tool shed on the property.
An eighth-grade dropout, Steed asked Jeffs if he could return to the church, but Steed said Jeffs threw him out, telling him he would not be lifted up to heaven with the other members. “That took all my hope, all my dreams away,” he said.
Slowly learning to survive
Depressed, confused and shunned by his family, Steed attempted suicide several times.
“I was living simply to exist,” he said.
Two years ago, he settled in a nearby town, Hurricane, and began working as a carpet cleaner.
Shem Fischer thinks that with jobs, four boys will be able to afford the $900-a-month rent for a small, four-bedroom house in Midvale. One boy already works the evening shift at Wendy’s. Two others just landed construction jobs. They aren’t used to remembering when job interviews are or how to pay bills. They don’t know how to mingle with people, and some struggle to talk to girls.
“You’re taught that everyone out here is corrupt and evil,” Steed said. “You have no idea how life works, no idea how to survive in modern society.” They are, after all, only teens, but now they are on their own.
A therapist meets with some boys; some attend self-improvement classes. They are learning to manage money and signing up to take the GED. Fischer evaluates them, asking about future plans and if they want to go to college. He is working to match each boy with a mentor and find them places to live. For now, they live in hotels and in houses that the Fischer brothers own.
Many are highly skilled in construction, a main job in the creek. But all this support from outsiders is confusing. The boys say FLDS members and even their own families often turned on them, so it was easier to distrust everyone.
“In a way, it scares us,” said Raymond Hardy, 19. “I’m not used to it.” Ream wants to know what the catch is. “There’s always a catch. Why are they doing this?”
Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in child trauma, said the boys likely would feel safe bonding with each other for a while, but would struggle with creating their own boundaries.
“Now they’re in a society where there are no controls at all,” he said. “They have to develop their own inner ability to say noÉ. In a sense, they’re handicapped.”
Six lost boys recently filed a conspiracy lawsuit against Jeffs and Sam Barlow, a former deputy sheriff in Mohave County, Arizona, and close associate of Jeffs, accusing them of “systematic excommunication” of young men in order to reduce competition for wives. The lawsuit also accuses them of assault, terrorist threats and child kidnapping, allegations that Parker denied and said were sensationalist.
Parker said the lawsuit violated the 1st Amendment because the church could excommunicate anyone it chooses.
Efforts to reach church leaders were unsuccessful. Parker said they did not speak to reporters. A dispatcher for the Colorado City Police Department and town hall also said leaders did not speak to the media.
Utah and Arizona prosecutors have been investigating allegations of welfare fraud, tax fraud, incest, child abuse and forced marriages of young girls. Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff has even volunteered to be a mentor to the boys. Steed is already getting a new start. He recently traveled to Boulder, Colo., to visit his mentor, Jon Krakauer, author of the best-selling book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,” which is about the FLDS. Krakauer has offered to help pay for Steed’s education or help him open a carpet-cleaning business.
“Society doesn’t pay any attention to this,” said Krakauer, who spent years researching the FLDS community. “This is a scary culture. It’s like having the Taliban right up the road from Vegas, and no one pays any notice. These kids don’t know how to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The United States of America is not something that’s revered.”
Steed said he no longer contemplated suicide and had been helping other lost boys.
“When you come out of it, it’s hard. I actually have a life I want to live. There’s a whole world out here,” he said, offering a hint of a smile.
“I’m actually going to Maybe make something of myself.