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His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, James Jeffs provides hope for a new life.

  • 11 min to read
His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs goes to his room, framed by a Zion sign, at his family's home. Many people still loyal to the FLDS hang Zion placards over their homes.

HILDALE, Utah — His last name for years had evoked memories of backward evil, but the boy known as Slim knew he represented progress as he was introduced during warmups of a Utah state playoff game in February. He couldn't use his nickname in the outside world, so the announcer bellowed James Jeffs! to the gym's rafters, and the 6-foot-8-inch Water Canyon star kept his head high as he jogged onto the court.

He was four hours north of his remote town on the Utah-Arizona border, and it was still always difficult to know how he would be received outside of it. "That's a Jeffs boy," one woman whispered to another in the stands and, after the game began and James took a hard fall, another opposing fan cupped his hands around his lips and yelled, "He flopped!"

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs blocks out during a playoff game against Intermountain Christian to qualify for the state tournament.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs and teammates enjoy the road trip to Water Canyon's playoff game.

James, 18, rose firmly, even though so much of his surroundings could have rattled him. He had heard so many questions over the years about his last name, about how his family members led what many called a polygamist cult for generations, about how his incarcerated uncle - one of the country's most notorious criminals - was still viewed as a prophet by pockets of believers in his community. There were reminders everywhere.

Sometimes he wondered whether any kid would be able to get recruited for sports in his town, let alone one with his last name. He thought about the uncertainty that awaited him when he set off to college in the fall.

But he was James Jeffs, he always reminded himself, the same kid who had escaped that polygamist cult and was now doing everything that was once banned: attend and excel at a public high school, not to mention become its first sports star, and bring together a community of people who had never rooted at a sporting event such as this before. This was just one more chance to pull his community into modern society, and he finished with seven blocks, 13 rebounds and a late dunk to lead his school to victory and a state tournament berth in just the team's fourth year of existence.

He ran off the floor and into a cafeteria, where his team was getting dressed in a makeshift locker room.

"Slim, we did it!" a teammate cried.

"We're going to state!" James replied, over and over again.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

Water Canyon center James Jeffs, rear at right, and teammates stretch before a game against Monticello in February. 

* * *

The prophet

Somewhere in a Texas prison sits James's uncle, Warren Jeffs, who for nearly a decade fashioned himself as prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He ruled Hildale and its twin, Colorado City, Arizona - the area is known as Short Creek - as an oppressive leader, committing horrific crimes against some of his followers, including young women.

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The FLDS church traces its roots to the early 20th century, when leaders splintered from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church) after it banned polygamy, or plural marriage. Mormons seeking to break from the church over the ban, which they viewed as violating a key principle of their religion as established by Joseph Smith and continued under Brigham Young, began settling in Short Creek in droves during the 1930s.

The remoteness and rough topography of the region, with its towering vermilion cliffs and proximity to the Grand Canyon, made it an ideal place to practice their faith. They claimed they needed separation from the Mormon Church, which they felt was too conforming with American culture. The leaders of the movement quickly established a purely theocratic society, one that at its height would have an estimated 10,000 members and give rise to a succession of prophets.

Warren Jeffs assumed the prophecy from his deceased father, Rulon Jeffs, in 2002, taking over as ruler of the FLDS. But few could have imagined he would one day end up on the FBI's Most Wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden and a long list of other high-profile criminals, while on the run from authorities. While his father held to polygamist standards that fell more outside of the mainstream each year, Warren Jeffs turned the denomination into something sinister. He used harsh mind-control techniques, set up cameras in all corners of Short Creek and created a security force called the "God Squad" to enforce the town and tail outsiders. The outside world was walled off more than before, and tall fences were erected around most properties. Public education and the internet were banned, as were sports.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

A basketball goal is seen with a hoop missing at an old school in Hildale, Utah. Public education and the internet were banned, as were sports, under Warren Jeffs. 

By one estimate, he had fathered more than 50 children and taken as many as 80 wives, including scores of underage girls within the church. In 2011, he was convicted of sexually assaulting two underage girls whom he had claimed as his "spiritual wives," and he was sentenced to life in prison.

He continued to influence the town from his jail cell, even as the corrupt networks he built within the town's political and social infrastructure began to crumble. That included during the summer of 2012, when he told a bishop in his church that he had a revelation about his brother, Dale, whom he wrongly accused of murdering unborn children and corrupting the faithful of his church. He ordered Dale Jeffs and two of his three wives to leave the FLDS and not have contact with anyone in the church, including his 16 children, who would remain at a compound in Short Creek.

Dale quickly said his goodbyes, including to young James, and he told one of his oldest daughters to keep close a flip phone he was paying for. She would be punished by the church if it was discovered she was still communicating with her father, but it would prove to be their way out.

* * *

The escape

In February 2013, seven months after Dale Jeffs and his two wives were exiled, they hatched a plan to get their kids back. James and his siblings each packed a light bag of clothes, not knowing whether they would be able to get out undetected.

"The only part I was scared about," Dale says, "was that I hoped it went like I planned."

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

A chimney with "PRAY AND OBEY" on it is seen at the former 44-bedroom home of Warren Jeffs. The house has been converted to a sober living center by evangelical missionaries. 

Just after sunrise one morning, around 8:30 when the small town was bustling just enough to provide cover for an escape, two of Dale's older daughters loaded up a van with the 12 kids and drove them six miles outside of town. Their parents were waiting at a drop-off called Cedar Point. They were crying, James says, and later they all stopped for barbecue at a restaurant on their way to a new life in Heber City, Utah.

"A lot of people had their families broken up," James says. "Every day, [I] just look at all my family and just go, 'I don't know what I would've done.' Because it was getting to the point where we were about to be broken up."

James began taking online classes, and on many nights he and his dad watched Utah Jazz games together.

By that point, with Warren Jeffs in prison and losing power, especially on the roughly 85 percent of land he once controlled with his church-backed trust, Hildale was beginning to open a bit to the outside world. A string of high-profile lawsuits were filed, and a federal judge ruled that Short Creek "had engaged in a decades-long . . . practice of police misconduct and housing discrimination." FLDS members began to move out of mansions and compounds lined with walls designed to keep outsiders at bay.

The city's law enforcement was no longer heavily influenced by the FLDS, and Hildale was moving toward electing its first non-FLDS mayor. Water Canyon High School was built and became the first public school in the city in more than a decade, and it inspired Dale Jeffs to move his family back to Hildale in early 2015. James was convinced to join the basketball team, even though he had never played.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

A home is surrounded by walls and fence in Hildale, Utah. After Warren Jeffs was imprisoned, FLDS members began to move out of mansions and compounds lined with walls designed to keep outsiders at bay.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

RIGHT: A man instructed by the United Effort Plan Trust burns fences that surrounded former FLDS homes.

"Everybody was just so anti-sports, or anti-social, back then. And sports has allowed me to, yeah, just kind of step out and just say, 'I'm coming over here, where you can actually know people,' " James says. "Sports has allowed me to step out, and I think everyone in this town to step out."

The move was challenging, in part because Dale had little money and was on disability with numbness in his feet, but also because of the reputation the family carried in the town. James and his siblings would get confused watching their father walk into Walmart and either get stared at or snubbed by people he had long considered friends.

Dale still lives with his two wives, he says, and 12 of his children live with him in a 24-room, rose-colored home near the high school in Hildale. He is no longer a member of the FLDS, and although the family has remained together, he says they no longer attend church services on Sunday. He voted for the first time in his life in 2017. He's focused on supporting the new lives of his children. He has watched James go to the movies and include him on homework assignments. He's brought his wives and children to his basketball games.

Polygamy and bigamy are illegal in Utah, but the practice is more or less allowed, with the state rarely prosecuting polygamists unless crimes are being conducted. It is less tolerated socially, even as an estimated 30,000 polygamists remain in the state, including several other families in Hildale. But while Dale and James remain guarded about their privacy, there is a sense that Dale is holding on to his family far more than he is any church traditions or religious beliefs. He says that he supports the next generation of his family, James included, moving forward into a more modern world.

"We were held to things so tight within the box, you might say, that when we started looking at things from a different perspective, we got a different view of things," Dale said. "So we just kind of do the best we can."

Religion is something he has not held "too much" on to, he says, and he tries not to think about his half brother in prison.

"You just realize how he had deceived everybody so severely. It hurts to see him hurt people," Dale said. "That's where you have the hurt, where you see he's deceived so many people, and broke up so many families."

* * *

The way forward

On the sixth anniversary of their reunion and escape from the FLDS church, the Jeffs cooked barbecue at their home in Hildale, and on the next night, Dale helped James do maintenance on his 1986 Ford Ranger. A billow of smoke rose in the distance as the sun went down; a property owner was burning a tall wood fence that had once been built to keep outsiders away from a house. Down the street was Warren Jeffs's old compound, still sporting the original chimney emblazoned with an iron motto: PRAY AND OBEY.

There are constant reminders around town; just steps from the school is the baptism hall that inside still bears the names of the FLDS prophets, from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young to the Jeffs. Above it sits an abandoned cave once controlled by the FLDS in case the federal government ever raided the town; eight years after Jeffs was convicted, it is still stocked with beans and bags of rice on old shelves.

Down the road lies a baby graveyard, where dozens of small tombstones mark the scores of children the town has lost over the years. In many cases, the FLDS church encouraged cousins to marry to maintain bloodlines, and some reports have speculated so many children have died because of disease from inbreeding.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

A girl in a prairie dress looks back as she rollerblades outside an old school in Hildale, Utah. 

There are no public signs of Warren Jeffs in Short Creek, although his presence can still be felt. He is considered a martyr to the dwindling FLDS members in the community - some estimate the church still has thousands of total members - and in Short Creek, many hang signs decorated with the word "Zion" above their front doors; the message means "the pure in heart" and for some is a signal for apostates, or outsiders, to stay away.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

Boxes of food and supplies remain in a cave once operated by the FLDS church and since abandoned. 

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

Dozens of small tombstones mark the scores of children the town has lost over the years. 

Down the cliffs in the Water Canyon gym, basketball is helping move the school into a new age. Parents of the players are learning how to root for the first time. Players are warming up to pop music roaring out of speakers, something that would have never been allowed a decade ago, and find individuality simply in the uniforms they wear and the nicknames they give one another.

They won one game their first year and six their second. That climbed to 11 last year and 12 this year. But it's the demeanor of former church members that has changed the most.

"When I first got the job," Coach Brad Garrett says, "a lot of the kids were coming in and meeting me, and they would go to shake my hand and they didn't want to look you in the eye, or they were afraid to. If you would have seen it four or five years ago, it's amazing the change that has taken place."

James has grown close to Garrett, a former Oklahoma State guard who commutes 45 minutes from nearby St. George, Utah, to teach and coach at the school, and a group of teammates he mostly didn't know despite living in the same area when he was younger. When he started high school, he was introverted and painfully shy around outsiders, a product of his time spent in the church, where he learned at an early age to follow orders and do what he was told. (Warren Jeffs had a habit of excommunicating young males for various reasons; they became known as "Lost Boys.") James was not allowed to play sports, go to movies or own a dog, and he spent many of his days waking up at 6 a.m., milking cows until two five-gallon buckets were filled.

"He never talked to anybody. . . . We tease him a lot. That's how we got him out of his shell," says point guard Ben Cooke, whose parents left the FLDS when he was a young child. "And we nicknamed him Slim."

James is now a polished big man who, aside from averaging eight blocks per game, has an array of post moves and a clean shooting stroke. Garrett has worked tirelessly to get several small schools to scout and recruit James. He is trying to become the first one in his family to graduate from college, and he is hoping to become the first player from his high school to play college sports. He wonders whether the town's history has hurt him. He's wondered about his name.

"I am my own self. If the name has something to do with it, then cut that line off," he says. "I'm me. Whoever else has that last name, they're them."

* * *

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs is hoping to become the first player from his high school to play college sports. 

'The opportunity to play'

Water Canyon needed two vehicles to haul players to the state tournament, stopping at Wendy's to eat and checking into a Motel 6 before the game. Outside the hotel, James blared Johnny Cash's "Hurt" on the radio of his coach's rental car. When the team finally arrived at the arena, Garrett realized his school was the only one not to have a banner hanging on the wall.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs is dunked by teammates in a hotel pool after they won the school's first game at the 1A Utah High School Activities Association boys' state tournament.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs's father, Dale, brother Ben and sister Laura watch Water Canyon's playoff game.

"Where's our sign?" he sternly asked a tournament official outside the locker room. "We weren't even aware of Water Canyon until today," the official replied, and Garrett stormed into the locker room and used it as part of his pregame speech.

There was a sign outside the locker room that James did notice, a motivational quote from a professional football player. He stared at it. "Do you know what my favorite part of the game is?" the sign read. "The opportunity to play."

James stormed onto the court, where he immediately picked up three quick fouls and watched his team fall into a big hole. James and his teammates would lose by 24 points that night, but just to be at the state tournament, to have the opportunity to participate in a sport they were once banned from playing, felt like enough.

After the game, the players giggled as they ran through the aisles of Walmart and picked out snacks to take back to the Motel 6, where they would teach James how to play a basketball video game before bed. He looked at his phone at one point to see if his dad had texted, and even though he hadn't, James said he could hear him cheering during the game.

Dale had an entire bleacher section to himself, with no other parents choosing to sit near or talk to him. Instead, he sat with two of his children, Ben and Laura, and explained the game to them.

"All right, James! Slam dunk," Dale yelled as the second half began, and he called one of his wives to tell her that James had committed his fourth foul in the third quarter. "He's playing good defense," he said, and by the final minute he hoped that his son might have one more big play in him, to give the announcer one last chance to tell everyone their name.

His uncle ran a polygamist cult. As his town's first sports star, he provides hope for a new life.

James Jeffs holds his head after the playoff defeat. "Sports has allowed me to step out, and I think everyone in this town to step out," he says.

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