Former FLDS members fear their children’s disappearance is part of Warren Jeffs’ prophecy

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(NEW YORK) — Lorraine Jessop’s three youngest children – Nathan, Summer, and Benjamin – have been missing since Feb. 4, 2023. According to court documents, they ran away.

“I checked on them at midnight,” Jessop, 42, told ABC News. “And my daughter was awake. And I thought, ‘That’s odd."”

“At 5 in the morning, I awoke to a cold house because the front door was wide open and the kids were gone,” Jessop continued. “It was horrifying.”

But Jessop doesn’t believe it’s that simple, nor does she believe her children’s disappearance is an isolated incident. She is an ex-member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the polygamist breakaway offshoot of Mormonism. And there are three other mothers whose children have also disappeared – eight children in total, one as young as 12.

“I feel like that either someone took it upon themself or were told by church authorities to gather up these children,” Jessop said to ABC News in an interview for “Impact x Nightline” now streaming on Hulu.

Another mother, Elizabeth Roundy, 49, agrees. She believes her daughter Elintra, who ran away on January 1, 2023, was told how to run away.

“I am positive that FLDS are hiding Elintra,” Roundy said.

The church is best known for its prophet – Warren Jeffs – who was convicted in 2011 to life in prison for sexually assaulting girls as young as 12. But he remains the church’s prophet from behind bars, according to experts and former members that ABC News spoke with.

Last year, experts say Jeffs began to release new revelations, or prophecies, which ABC News has obtained, including one last June that calls for children of ex-members to come back into the fold, and another in August calling for members of the FLDS to die in the next 5-1/2 years in order to reach heaven.

Experts of the FLDS church, as well as the mothers of the eight missing children, fear an event similar to Jonestown, when more than 900 people died in a murder-suicide orchestrated in 1978 by Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple cult.

“And so you think some of those followers would be prepared to lay down their lives for their beliefs?” Juju Chang, Co-Anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline,” asked Jessop.

“Oh, yes,” Jessop answered. “I think that I was prepared to lay down my life.”

“And they would lay down the lives of children?” Chang asked.

“Oh, yes,” Jessop said.

HISTORY OF THE FLDS

The FLDS was founded more than 130 years ago after polygamy was outlawed in the Mormon Church. Its current prophet, Warren Jeffs, is a 67-year-old convicted pedophile who had approximately 80 wives, many of them underage, according to experts.

These mothers of the missing children – Lorraine Jessop, Mirinda Johnson, Elizabeth Roundy, and Sarah Johnson – all grew up in the FLDS, and up until they left the church believed Warren Jeffs was the prophet.

“Warren was God to us,” Jessop remembered.

In this sect, women are viewed as second-class and subservient to men. Children are home-schooled and are often sent to live with families different from their birth parents. Their lives are completely different than that of the modern world. Warren Jeffs released revelations telling members to live without phones, the internet, and even toys, experts and former members told ABC News. These communities often live in remote border towns, some even on secure compounds.

“Growing up, it was our purpose… to be married,” Sarah Johnson said. “I decided in the very beginning that I was going to be the most obedient, the most perfect wife I could be.”

She says she was betrothed at 17 to a man 25 years her elder. One of her four sister-wives was her biological sister and, among them, they had more than 30 children.

Johnson’s son, Salome, has been missing the longest. He ran away on March 9, 2021.

One child, who went missing last year, has since been found. Warren Jeffs’ nephew, Heber Jeffs, was charged last December with kidnapping his 10-year-old niece, whose parents had left the FLDS. He says he raised the girl since she was young. The charging court documents allege that Heber followed his uncle’s prophecies and directives, one of which called for children of ex-members to come back to the church.

Heber has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of ‘custodial interference’ and his attorney denied that the recent revelations influenced his actions. The 10-year-old girl has been reunited with her parents.

AN ‘APOSTATE’

These mothers have another key trait in common – they have all left the fundamentalist church. But when someone leaves, the community labels them an ‘apostate’ – the scarlet letter of the FLDS.

“When you leave, you’re considered an apostate, and are treated severely by the people who remain in the church,” said Roger Hoole, an attorney who represents some of these mothers. “It’s often a very long process before somebody leaves, and then it’s a long process before they emotionally are able to make the real adjustment. It’s not something that’s done overnight.”

Leaving the church can simultaneously be a real chance at freedom, but also a terrifying experience, these mothers told ABC News.

“It’s like jumping off of a cliff and not knowing if your parachute’s going to open, if you even have one on,” Sarah Johnson said of leaving the sect. “Just knowing that taking that jump is better than staying where you’re standing.”

But when Lorraine Jessop left, she felt differently.

“I felt like I was gonna burn in hell,” Jessop said.

Because of their ‘apostate’ label, these mothers’ children believed they were corrupt and dangerous, and out of fear shouldn’t be living with them, the moms told ABC News. To live with their non-FLDS mothers would mean to leave the only life they’ve ever known, they added, and that’s why each mom believes their child ran away.

“Our concern is, how do they run away by themselves?” Hoole said. “Are they being helped? Are we seeing a pattern here?”‘

The FLDS has a long history of hiding and harboring people, experts say. In the past, they’ve used a network they call “houses of hiding,” which is the same network that kept Warren Jeffs hidden for two years even as he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

REVELATIONS

But what these mothers say terrifies them the most is that if their children ran back to the church, they could be facing incredible danger from the prophecies that have been released by Warren Jeffs.

“In the FLDS, the children are raised to believe that the prophet can do no wrong,” Hoole explained. “And the adults that are in the group believe the prophet can do no wrong.”

“So if this revelation is accurate, and it is believed to be accurate by the FLDS people, and if Warren Jeffs were to command people to be translated, in other words, die, so that they could go to heaven — the faithful FLDS may well do that,” Hoole continued. The revelation, which was released last August, called for FLDS members to be ‘translated’ to heaven in the next 5-1/2 years.

“And translated to heaven in the Mormon context means you become immortal, you go to heaven,” Hoole explained. “But the problem is, and this is what the revelation says, the problem is you have to die first.”

The former police chief of Salt Lake City Chris Burbank fears the worst could be possible.

“I think Warren Jeffs’ influence over the FLDS community is so significant that it’s not unrealistic to believe his followers would follow him down the road of a mass suicide event,” Burbank said.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

“How, in the United States of America, could a religion exist where the belief is that children will be translated, in other words, have to die and go to heaven within five years?” Hoole asked.

Utah was founded by pioneers seeking religious freedom, according to Burbank. He says there’s a long history in Utah that believes citizens should be able to practice whatever religion they want.

“I think that’s part of the reason it took so long for the state to take any action in the first place a number of years ago, because of this notion of religious freedom,” Burbank said, speaking about the 2008 YFZ Ranch raid and the civil rights investigation into the FLDS.

Burbank thinks that stigma might continue today.

“Law enforcement is leery of these cases,” Burbank said. “I think there is a stigma attached to investigating or intruding upon freedom of religion.”

“And I’m a firm believer in the ability to practice your religion free from the influence of the government,” Burbank said. “But when your religious practice then endangers children, we have to draw a line there.”

ABC News reached out to the FBI, and officials declined to comment on whether there was an investigation into these missing children.

ABC News also reached out to each individual law enforcement agency handling the cases of the eight missing children, and they all confirmed they remain active and open cases.

ABC News attempted to reach the FLDS church through Helaman Jeffs, the son of Warren Jeffs, who has been issuing his father’s revelations. ABC News did not receive a response.

MOTHERS’ LOVE

These mothers say they will keep searching for their children. When asked what they would say to their missing children if they were to see them, each mother responded with an answer of love.

“Well, first I would get up and I would give ’em a great big hug,” Mirinda Johnson said. “And then I would probably [say], ‘Why’d you do that to me?"”

Johnson’s children have been missing since October 29, 2022 – more than 230 days.

“I would say, ‘Elintra, I love you so much. And I miss you terribly, more than I can say. And I’m worried about your safety,” Elizabeth Roundy told ABC News. “Please come home."”

Roundy’s daughter has been missing since January 1, 2023 – more than 170 days.

“True love is unconditional,” Jessop said. “I love you regardless of what you wear, what you believe. God gave you to me as children. God appointed me as your mother…I love you with a mother’s love that’s stronger than anything you could imagine.”

Lorraine Jessop’s three kids have been missing since February 4, 2023 – over 130 days.

“I want him to know that nothing has changed since the last time that we hugged or spoke to each other,” Sarah Johnson said. “I’m always going to love you, and there’s so much that I want to teach you.”

Sarah’s son has been missing since March 9, 2021 – more than 830 days.

“I feel a little bit crazy sometimes,” Johnson finished. “But every time I drive down the road if I see a child or a boy that looks like he could be about his age, or size, I just have to look ’em in the face.”

ABC News’ Karin Weinberg, Laura Coburn, Zoe Chevalier, and Ashley Schwartz-Lavares contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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