With Netflix’s new series Murder Among the Mormons, Mormonism is front and center. And it’s impossible to think about the Mormon religion without associating it with polygamy, even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormon church, suspended that practice in 1890. However, a fringe group wanted to continue practicing polygamy and branded themselves the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, most recently led by Warren Jeffs.
Warren Jeffs was the son of the previous leader, Rulon Jeffs, who also practiced extreme polygamy, although not to the same severity and abuse of minors like Jeffs did. Jeffs also had a lot of money by the time he was on the run from the law in 2006. He was able to house and effectively control the lives of reportedly over 10,000 members, but where did he get his money?
Warren Jeffs got his money mostly through real estate and construction.
Everyone says to invest in real estate, but to Warren Jeffs, that meant something different. He was able to amass over $100 million worth of property by 2006 before he was caught up in his various legal battles that would result in his imprisonment. Jeffs and the FLDS owned land in multiple states, and essentially owned the entire sister towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Some quick history: those two towns were once collectively called Short Creek back in 1942, around when many fundamentalists were excommunicated from the Mormon church. FLDS officially began in 1954, under LeRoy Johnson. Many of these members who settled in Short Creek dedicated their homes and properties to a church trust under the name of United Effort Plan (UEP). The UEP amassed over 700 properties, and whoever is in charge of the church was effectively in charge of the UEP.
Jeffs was able to continue earning money, building on his empire using construction services. Because he had many followers who believed his word was scripture, the men and boys would often work and build properties for little to no money. This meant that Jeffs could bid on high-earning construction projects by lowballing competitors and then would keep all the earnings to himself. He also would reportedly sell off empty plots of land under his ownership for some extra cash.
Warren Jeffs also got money directly from the FLDS members.
Although Jeffs had an easy bucket of money with property and free to low-cost labor from his followers, he needed some sort of cash flow as well. Jeffs controlled every aspect of his followers’ lives; as the leader of FLDS, he was the only person allowed to perform marriages. He assigned multiple wives (often teen brides) to his male followers, and could kick them out of their homes or reassign wives and children at any moment as punishment.
Because of this level of control, his members were bound to him. The FLDS had some entrepreneurial members, who were able to build businesses from the ground up, all of which reported to Jeffs. One of the highest-earning FLDS enterprises, Western Precision, constructed parts for the U.S. Department of Defense. This brought in monetary amounts of $100,000 alone every month to Jeffs.
In these businesses, the members unsurprisingly worked for low to no wages, similar to Jeff's construction model. Not only that, but members were required to pay anywhere from $500 to $1000 every month as tithes to the church. If at any point a member upset Jeffs, they could lose their job, community, and home, so it’s no secret how Jeffs kept them in his folds.
It was later proven that Warren Jeffs did get some of his money through government fraud.
In a later investigation, once Warren Jeffs was already behind bars, it was discovered that the church and Jeff's brother, Lyle Jeffs, were using SNAP funds illegally. SNAP is basically money given to qualified recipients on government-provided debit cards to buy eligible food items. Whoever collects that money is then supposed to use it only for specified purposes.
However, the FLDS was not only directing non-authorized people to purchase food using SNAP benefits, they were then putting that food into a shared storehouse that was controlled fully by the FLDS. In addition, members were only able to purchase these food items at FLDS-run businesses, which would then use this taxpayer money for ineligible purposes.
Ultimately, Warren Jeffs got his money from multiple channels through illegal and unscrupulous means that proved exceptionally difficult to trace.