“I Escaped a Cult” — Inside the World of Militant Polygamists

Brent Jeffs, one of the subjects of I Escaped a Cult, was born in 1983 behind the walls of a concrete compound in Salt Lake Valley that was an outpost of  the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The group, also known as FLDS, is a breakaway Mormon sect which still clings to the practice of polygamy, a practice that the mainstream Mormon church abandoned back in 1890.

Brent has an elite bloodline by FLDS standards. His grandfather Rulon and his uncle Warren both rose to leadership in the sect, and were regarded as prophets whose word was not to be disobeyed.

But as Brent describes in his 2009 memoir, Lost Boy: The True Story of One Man’s Exile from a Polygamist Cult and his Brave Journey to Reclaim his Life,  his lineage didn’t protect him from becoming a victim of what he and others describe as the cult’s cruel sexual exploitation of children. Starting at age 5, he says that he was sexually abused by his uncle Warren. Memories of his ordeal continued to torment him into adulthood. In the book, he describes awakening, screaming, from nightmares in which Warren plucked him from a kindergarten classroom and led him down the hallway to a bathroom where the rapes took place. “All I remember feeling was overwhelming panic, pain, and helplessness,” he writes. “Something terrible was going to happen to me, something horrendous and unstoppable.”

But Brent, sadly, wasn’t the only young victim of a twisted subculture in which a few leaders had supreme power to take whatever they wanted.  Adolescent girls were compelled to become the brides of older men and begin breeding as soon as they were able to produce more members of the flock.  But because the most powerful men had multiple wives, that led to shortage of females. To reduce the competition, adolescent boys continually were excommunicated and cast out of the community to fend for themselves.

According to testimony by Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard at a 2008 U.S. Senate hearing, FLDS began in the early 1900s, when its founders left the mainstream Mormon faith and set up a polygamist community in the tiny town of Short Creek, AZ, along the Arizona Utah border.  Over the decades that followed, Arizona police repeatedly tried to drive out the polygamists, including a July 1953 predawn raid in which police and National Guard troops took 263 residents into custody.  But oddly, public sympathy in Arizona shifted to the polygamists, who were seen as being unfairly persecuted, and Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, who had orchestrated the raid, was voted out of office in 1954.  Thus chastened, government and law enforcement agencies largely left FLDS alone for years.

With little outside scrutiny, the leaders of FLDS became increasingly powerful and autocratic as their sect gradually grew. By the early 2000s, FLDS had an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 members in the Arizona-Utah border area, and largely controlled the communities of Colorado City and Hilldale. FLDS influence extended into local law enforcement agencies, in which some of the officers themselves were polygamists, according to Senate testimony. In some cases, police officials allegedly assisted the cult by forcibly removing the adolescent boys that cult leaders wanted to exile.

To support itself, FLDS operated an underground economic empire built upon child labor, according to Stephen Singular, an investigative journalist who has probed the cult.  Singular testified in the 2008 U.S. Senate hearings that FLDS disregarded child labor laws and put young boys to work in its church-controlled construction company, where their unpaid labor enabled the sect to underbid the competition and snare lucrative government and private contracts.

But in the 2000s, law enforcement officials in several states again decided to crack down on FLDS.  According to the New York Times, in 2007, Warren Jeffs, who by then was leader of FLDS, was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl whose marriage he presided over.  He received two consecutive five-year jail terms. But the Utah Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction, ruling that a judge had erred in his jury instructions.  Prosecutors in Texas, where Warren Jeffs had set up an outpost called the Yearning for Zion Ranch,  had better luck. In August 2011, the FLDS leader was found guilty of the sexual assault of two underage females. At the trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show that he had fathered a child with a 15-year-old victim, and also played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

In this 2011 Time magazine interview, Brent recounted how he finally got some comfort from the trial, in which he was a witness. Brent’s testimony about his own abuse was so powerful that three of the jurors reportedly broke into tears. He also got a chance, at last, to confront his tormentor. “I actually got to walk right up to him and say, ‘You finally got what you deserved,'” Brent said. “He just looked at me and looked down at the ground and they hauled him off…I thought, Man, you know what, you had your time. Now it’s time for you to have justice served and you’re going to see what it feels like to suffer.”

But even behind bars, Warren Jeffs reportedly continues to hold sway over his FLDS followers. According to this February 2012 Time article, he recently issued orders to cult members to take away their children’s bicycles and to build a “massive, amphitheater-like structure at the Texas ranch, apparently in preparation for doomsday.

I Escaped a Cult takes viewers on a journey to discover the courageous stories of four people who escaped the clutches of abuse, mind control, and fear in two dangerous religious cults. Watch tonight, Tuesday April 10th,  at 10P et/pt and read more I Escaped a Cult Stories here


  1. Anon
    April 8, 2012, 10:52 am

    Just wanted to let you know that the end of your 6th paragraph got cut off…am interested to know the rest! “In 2004, Jeffs also….”

  2. Jim
    United States
    April 10, 2012, 9:58 pm

    The intro to the FLDS segment of I escaped a cult which contains inaccurate, misleading, and sloppy documentary work.

    Why do they show a picture of the Salt Lake City temple which belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the beginning of this segment? They imply that the Salt Lake Temple which is the iconic symbol of the LDS church is somehow connected with the FLDS movement. The two religions have nothing to do with each other. Nor do they share SLC as headquarters for their churches. Salt Lake City is the headquarters for the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also known as the Mormons with more than 14 Million members world-wide who are spread out in communities around the world.

    In Contrast, the FLDS church was headquartered initially in Short Creek Arizona and eventually in the twin cities of Hildale Utah and Colorado City Arizona, with roughly 10,000 members who are, for the most part confined to compounds. Granted there may be “satellite” compounds anywhere including SLC as was illustrated.

    What they have done is tantamount to showing pictures of Rome and the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica in an introduction to a documentary on the Lutheran Church and then implying that they share Rome as their headquarters. Granted, there may be a Lutheran Church near the Vatican but the two are not connected.

    This makes me question what other topics they might have “mislead” we viewers on. I have always been a huge fan and watch Nat Geo daily. So, come-on man! Are the producers and editors at Nat Geo who worked on this really that stupid or are just lazy?

  3. jo
    United States
    April 11, 2012, 12:54 am

    This show was so tragically interesting. It’s horrible what goes on in these cults. Is there going to be an ongoing series on “I escaped the cult”?

  4. Jeff
    Las Vegas, NV
    April 11, 2012, 12:58 am

    This show is unwatchable. This quick-fade-to-black after every freaking sentence is excruciating. Please fire every editor and post-production employee on this show.

  5. Jana
    April 11, 2012, 10:30 am

    Thanks again to the media the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), of which I am a member, has been linked to the FLDS church. There are still people in this country that believe that Mormons practice polygamy and this is mostly due to misinformation. Please get your facts straight. The program was awesome in that it got the facts out about Warren Jeffs. My heart aches for the children in their church. It was great information in helping us understand how cults operate with mind games, control, isolation, fear, and especially perverting the love of our Savior Jesus Christ into hate, etc. I hope you will do more programs to continue helping us understand how we can avoid such things for ourselves. And I hope that people can learn that whatever an individual chooses for himself does not reflect on the group as a whole. Anyone committing crimes against people, especially children should be brought to justice. I have no doubt that many FLDS are wonderful people but Warren Jeffs needed to be brought down. What an amazing amount of courage it took for Brent Jeffs to do what he has done and is doing. God Bless Him.

  6. Heather
    April 11, 2012, 2:18 pm

    I wish I could find the whole segment. In this video clip it doesn’t show the temple it shows the capitol building. I would like to see the full video to see if Jim above is correct about it being misleading….

  7. David F.
    United States
    April 11, 2012, 9:43 pm

    It is really sad what the individuals interviewed on the show have endured. At least one of the oppressors is in jail, hopefully the Greens won’t be too far behind.

    It would be of interest to see what specific Biblical Scriptures the oppressors were actually using to support their teachings. All I heard was, “The Bible says” or “God says.” But I don’t remember hearing any specific scriptural references to support their teachings.

  8. ann
    united states
    April 12, 2012, 8:58 am

    i escaped a cult was the best done show ever as it showed truth behind decption ….power and control….sick people. sad that some will allow another to control thru fear, intimidation and obligation. there are just as many cult like marriages out there too. please contiinue to bring light to the people…well done NGC

  9. NeverAgain
    April 16, 2012, 3:26 pm

    It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the religious fanatics who think they have a phone line to God. Thank you NatGeo for doing these programs. I wish all of the best to the brave people who speak out against these abusers, who use “god” to abuse others. Unfortunately there are a lot of religious sects that abuse humans right here in the good ole us of a.

    I escaped from a bible cult about 5 years ago & the memories are still there, though the pain has gone away..some. I hope it gets easier for those whose pain is way worse than mine.
    April G

  10. DB
    April 16, 2012, 10:53 pm

    The one thing I kept hearing was ‘You never heal’ when you leave a cult. That is NOT true. I was in a cult for six years and yes, you do. You have to understand what they did to you and how to overcome it. I had the good fortune of finding books that explained what the group did to me. I read them, understood how they’d manipulated me and began to heal. I’m not saying it happens overnight, but you do get to a point where you trust again and begin to live life and enjoy it. I wish the producers of this show had talked to me so I could show the others that there is a life after a cult.

  11. Micah
    April 17, 2012, 5:54 pm

    It was just a shock to turn on the television to see these cult especially the Aggressive Christianity Organization. The weird thing is that I got a random suspicious package from this organization a while back ago. I have never signed up for anything to receive anything from them either. The package looked like a bomb and the literature has nothing to do with the compassion of the Lord. I have done research on this group and have found it to be a cult. Anything that tries to control a person or family is a cult. I am trying to get this organization to stop sending me these things. What gets me is how in the world did they get my address and name.

  12. Too Concerned
    United States
    April 17, 2012, 8:49 pm

    Please do a show on Timothy and Carla Williams and Sound Doctrine Church in Enumclaw, Washington. There are so many people who are trapped and brain washed and their families just want to know how they are. Look it up–it is truly a DANGEROUS cult.

    They own a so-called Christian Publishing Business, WinePress Publishing and one of their leaders, Malcolm Fraser, is out on bail for alleged child rape.

    PEOPLE need to know!

  13. Athena Dean
    United States
    April 19, 2012, 9:56 am

    I too escaped a cult of Christianity (the one mentioned above by Too Concerned) just 5 months ago. Over a period of 12 years they stole everything from me, including my 3.5 million dollar publishing business, my house, my car, hundreds of thousands of dollars and had me divorce my husband of 18 years and cut off all family members, including my kids, who did not agree with their doctrine. It’s amazing how all cults use the same intimidation and humiliation in order to control the members. Finally I am not afraid to tell my story and applaud NGeo for this series. http://www.notafraidtotellmystory.com

  14. NeverAgainV
    May 4, 2012, 10:01 pm

    Personally I think there are plenty of under the radar religious fiefdoms in the usa. People think that if someone memorizes some bible verses & has as strong speaking presence (think HITLER, who was an awesome speaker…so much for a person being a great speaker being “good”…) People are getting sucked into these groups, it’s sad. I was a member of a cult that physically was able to separate me from my family by convincing me that I needed to relocate for the “the true church”. then after years of emotional, spiritual & psychological abuse when I decided to get the hell out of that prison of religion, the leader implied that god just might kill me or my family for leaving HIS church, which he equates as being the only true church. I see what a bunch of BS it all is. These guys are total jerks who have nothing better to offer our society than to take other people’s money, time & lives. I wish this type of religion would begin to show itself for what it is…
    Thanks Nat Geo for helping to show what is happening.

  15. kim
    June 10, 2012, 3:06 pm

    Where can I watch this full episode?

  16. SisiL78
    October 23, 2012, 1:14 pm

    If The FLDS folks all complaining about this documentary are so concerned about the bastardization of their religion by the FLDS then why don’t they go and save the children living in these compounds instead of spending billions of dollars on building shopping malls on church property, gold plated temples, and working tirelessly to deny gay people their civil rights.

    From what I can tell the LDS wants the FLDS to continue because they still believe in polygamy. They only don’t overtly practice it because it will limit getting new converts into the religion as well as make them marks for government action again. I would bet that the powerful and rich in the LDS ranks are still practicing polygamy and want the FLDS to continue so that when polygamy is legal they can start back where they stopped.

  17. James Owens
    December 22, 2012, 2:46 pm

    @Too Concerned and Athena Dean. I can only laugh at both of your absurdity. Having known you both personally, it makes it even more funny. One step more, as I now no longer attend Sound Doctrine you’re request is even more ludicrous. What exactly are you wanting to film? Maybe you’ll see some people walking to work in the morning and a group of highly dedicated individuals who serve their community and their fellow man. Maybe you should try doing that instead of inciting hatred. Or do you really think that the church window getting shot had nothing to do with your antics?

    Oh yeah and I’m just making sure, but that 3.5 million dollar company is the one you ruined twice, ran a ponzi scheme with, and would not be around if it weren’t for Timothy Williams and his godly leadership.

    God gave most of us brains, maybe you should start using yours.

  18. Colleen Simsa
    Traverse City, MI
    April 29, 2013, 2:29 pm

    I escaped from the cult under the Williams [Timothy/Carla]. I had stayed at the Williams at Enumclaw, WA [Jan 1-5, 2000] to help with the Forshay’s to moved out to Enumclaw, Wa from Michigan. One day I saw my dream [night vision] from God, “You will be heading for Washington State” with pure white 8 1/2x 11 sheet. I told Lance Forshay about it. [At first I have no idea that the Williams are a cult]. Lance told Tim what I had said. Tim strongly feel to believe that it came from God. He insisted me must move there. I refuse because I hardly knew them. When I had stayed with them for 4 days. I feel not comfortable in their house that something had bothered me. At worship service at Dennis/Gloria Meyer’s house, friend of Williams] while Tim preached. There are very few members around 10? I noticed that three ladies sit over there looked very afraid while Tim preached. I sensed something went wrong but I do not know what it was?

    I flew back home to Michigan from Enumclaw on Jan 5, 2000. I feel so relief with STRESS free. I never forgot my experience inside something had bothered me a lot about the Forshays to move and live there with the Williams.

    One day I emailed Tim to ask him a question, said, What if I decide to move there, Will I TRAP there? Tim had never answered my question! I become suspect deeply.

    About a month later, Tim William heard God’s voice told him that Colleen move here [Enumclaw]. Tim had asked God two times. God answer, Yes. Lance emailed me. I am very shock, very upset and anger. I emailed Lance back said, I did NOT heard from my God about this at all. Tim said with his angry hatred, “You rebellion against God, you majority sin!”

    I wondered, Have Jesus would said like this, NO, not at all!

    I emailed back to Tim with straightforward, “You will be heading for Washington State.” God did not saying,
    “You will moving out to Washington State.” I said to him this two different words very carefully, “Heading” and “Moving” are not same meaning. It are different meaning. “Heading” mean “go over there for few days like most business or vacation individuals then come back home.” “Moving out” mean move out over there to settle or to live for good or permanent. Tim said to me, This made NO difference. I shot him back, This does made difference! He back up. I see him tried to manipulation me, to make me feel guilty.

    He had emailed me 6 brief letters with abuse, anger, no love. I had studied his emails to focus. Finally I realize that he is in control/dictate/spiteful/hatred.

    One problem is that I do not know much about the cult things with ignorant. I decided visited at website to look for cult information. Next day my LORD moved me by His spirit said, Go “Cult”. At first I refused because I am very afraid of Tim. My LORD insisted keep showed me till 3x times, finally I obeyed and type “cult” at website. Amaze! Speechless! The book title “Twisted Scriptures” by Mary Ann Chrnaloger. This book was very fine brilliant writer by Mary. I read through 3 times. I see this book matches what the Sound Doctrine Church and Tim Williams with 99%! I thank and praise my LORD!

    One other day, The Lord showed me, said, You listen Lance Forshay! while I talked with someone pastor from Church of Christ by emails. My Lord exhort me to listen Lance. I obeyed.

    Few months later I realized that my Lord God love Lance Forshay, not Tim Williams. If Tim Williams is a godly leadership. My God would show me to love Tim but not, Lance that He loved! It is obvious clearly that God is with Lance Forshay, NOT Tim Williams! I agreed with Athena Dean’s experience and her comments.

    Lance Forshay had left the Sound Doctrine Church. He and I keep in contact. I see him as a godly beloved man. I wish Tim could SEE in him to made him feel ashamed of himself!

    Dear ex-cult members, I would like to exhort you please read “Twisted Scripture” by Mary Chrnaglor [Now Mrs. Crapo, she married to a Baptist minister and lived in Tennessee]. Please do not going home-church by only one man with controlling, even do not take the tapes, books, and materials at all. Just going to any good church you want to do near where you lived.

    Have your heart surrender and receive Jesus Christ your Lord may live inside your heart today. I will pray for you.

    I also thank my God with quite amaze still is with me by His Amaze Grace Love forever!

    Colleen Simsa, Traverse City, MI

  19. Denise
    October 1, 2013, 1:58 am

    I have a family member in Sound Doctrine and miss him very much. First I want to say that I do not agree with this group, but I also do not agree with the people that say that Mrs Williams is being punished with Cancer for her sins. You would have to say that everyone out there that has cancer is being punished by God. This is not true. God is the only one who knows who is being punished in this way, we as people are not to judge, where do we have the right to judge someone else in this way. The Bible tells us that he is the only one that is our Judge. “Judge not that ye be Judge” we do as Christian need to make wise decisions in our life’s by asking the Holy Spirit for the answers, studying God’s word for ourselves and kneeling on our knees in prayer asking God for the answers and direction. When we depend too much on any man for our answers we can and will get led astray. This is what God means in his word when he says “trust in no man” Every man who has ever lived has stumbled and fallen in one way or another, that is except Jesus Christ.
    Jesus Christ loves Mrs. Williams just as much as he loves each one of us. He wants what is best for each of us according to God’s will and not our own. Our will needs to line up with God’s will. Instead of condemning Mrs Williams pray for her healing in her spirit, mind and body. So that she will see what God really has for her instead of what a man would want for her. We also need to be praying for Timothy Williams, Malcolm Fraser and everyone else that are involved with this church. Pray for God’s will in all of their life’s. God will do the work.
    I have been hurt by this group also, but I want to see God doing the work and changing their hearts and ours. Christian are directed to pray for enemies most of all. And if you look at this group as your enemy, and are a true Christian it is time to get on your knees and start praying if you have not already done so. God broke down the walls of Jericho, he healed the leaper, and the blind man. he fed thousands of people with limited supplies he protected Daniel from the lions, he brought Jonah out of a large fish and many more miracles to show only one thing “His Power” God says he is the same, yesterday, today and forever. So if he said it, it has to be true and he can do something big for each one of us today.
    Let us all Learn to trust God in all things for our life’s today.
    He says you only need the faith of a mustard seed. Do you know how small a mustard seed is? It is tiny, so if that is all you need to get started. Lets do it!
    Prayer and Faith in God will do it.
    Love in Christ Jesus to all
    Denise Filato

  20. Ellie Williams
    July 1, 2014, 3:21 pm

    Now, I’m not part of the LDS church, but I have a friend who is. I know that the LDS church is NOT in any way related to this polygamy, and as the article said, they have discontinued it (around the same time everyone else did).

    The people in the LDS church don’t ‘rise in power’.

    This is just a group of crazy people taking the name of the Mormon church, adding an F, and making Mormons look bad for the FLDS’s faults.
    If you read the article, it says nothing bad about Mormons, just the people raping kids. Real Mormons don’t do that.
    Oh, and Mormon’s don’t ‘rob gay people of their freedom’. There are plenty of Christian people out there who’d BURN homosexual people, unlike a Mormon, who simply just does not believe in homosexual marriage.

    We’re all so messed up, especially me. Especially everyone. Why can’t people just let people believe what they want to believe?!

    I don’t believe in multiple gods, but that doesn’t mean I rag on that faith (or FAITHS)…

  21. Emily
    September 10, 2014, 2:27 am

    I am a Mormon member (not necessarily proudly). And I am so sorry for what happened to you. Things like that should never happen. Bless your heart. Bless your brothers souls. And all the best for you!!

  22. Sharon Bankhead Lammers
    February 2, 2015, 10:52 am

    i know what you went throw(David Koresh, Manson, and the other’s the woman i was put with went too), and no one willing to believe it happened or if it did that it happened to you. I know the isolation the “Church/Cult” can impose on someone they don’t like. I know the mind-games they played on bother child and parents. I’m still fighting to keep some of them away from my children and grandchildren to this day. even my husband has problems believing me for some people that knew the woman that raised me and she told so many lies that even my brother and sisters still believe her in death to this day. I feel the pain you felt and the pain you continue to feel and just hope you stay strong for all the ones that can’t brake the cycle of pain and hurt.
    I won’t say anything like “god bless” or stupid like that but i will say—-“Stand You Ground” don’t stop fighting for the America our Forefather faught and died for, “An America without controlling Church/cult leaders”, a free America!

  23. Sunshine Girl
    February 16, 2015, 2:36 pm

    Every church in this country supports or is under the influence the Warren cult….They have taken over almost every church in the country..with their circle groups….and even indoctrinate our children in public schools into pedophilia by setting up churches in their schools and preaching sex to kindergarteners. and no one cares….Yes, he does control people from prison, anyone who accepts Christianity is under the influence of this man and his family……I have been stalked by this cult for 8 years. Show me the way out.