Josiah’s death and funeral is one of those events that is so burned into my memory I doubt I will ever forget it. I hope I won’t. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be remembered.
I didn’t know Josiah really well, but I knew his mother. I had recovered some baby car seats for her when she had her twins, and she had been my son’s first grade teacher at the Jeffs Academy in Short Creek. Her children were well-behaved, generally quiet and shy, including Josiah – certainly not one that I would imagine even talking back to his mothers, much less being any kind of “bad boy.”
Yet, when the days of judging came, Josiah was found “unworthy.” A boy of 16, whose parents were determined to obey their god. Even when they were told that “god” said Josiah could no longer live with his family. The other family members had been found worthy, and god would no longer allow them to co-mingle, to risk corrupting the pure.
I sat in the meeting where Lyle Jeffs announced “god’s will.” Not only was a physical separation required, but a financial one as well. Fathers were directed to help their unworthy wives and children find jobs. They were now required to pay their own way. “Not one penny” from a worthy person could be used for the care or support of an unworthy family member. Every penny belonged to god.
Young Josiah was sent to Las Vegas to live, and to work at NewEra to earn his keep. At least his father was employed at NewEra, so he wasn’t completely alone. In that regard, Josiah was lucky. Many young boys were sent to job sites hundreds of miles away from any of their family. Generally forbidden from having contact with even their own mother.
In the summer of 2006, Western Precision was relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada, as part of a plan to sell the business. Before this Western Precision had been under the ownership and control of Wendell Nielsen, but was handed off to John Wayman around 2005 when Wendell “Went to Zion.”
This was a time of great secrecy, of judging, punishment and condemnation. Families were torn apart, bonds broken, and strange and unnatural connections forged. Many people started calling Lyle Jeffs “Father.” Portraits of Lyle started becoming a staple in people’s homes and even offices, and I saw numerous cell phones with the wallpaper picture set to Lyle’s portrait. I heard stories of the instructions Lyle would give to families after their father had been sent away, and they were unfeeling, harsh, and extreme.
Terrible, horrific, nightmarish times. Nothing seemed to make sense any more.
In Las Vegas, NewEra had rented homes for their workforce to live in. The company decided who lived where, and with whom, and would move people around at their discretion. They had an elaborate scheme set up for paying rent and utilities. At first the company just paid these expenses, and then they found out that wasn’t legal, so they devised a different plan. Because the church, through the company, still needed to maintain control. And they were determined to minimize costs so that more money could be funneled upwards.
In fact, one man stepped outside the norms and rented a home on his own, and then invited others to live with him to help pay the rent. This was looked down upon, greatly, and the man was soundly criticized for not being directable.
Most of the employees had family who lived in Short Creek. They would travel to Las Vegas in the early hours on Monday morning, stay in Las Vegas through the week, and then travel back after work on Saturday. Some few families lived in Las Vegas as their full-time home. Our family was directed to move there about two months after the company moved. John Wayman’s family also lived there and, as we came to realize, had much nicer lodgings than the rest of us. Which, to be honest, was no surprise. After all, no matter where John was, he always had the very best of everything. While the other families who lived there were instructed to stay inside to avoid detection, John’s family had a home with a vegetable garden and chickens – a place where his children had room to roam and a chance to get some fresh air and sunshine. Something that others were denied.
Another of the houses where John’s family lived was a beautiful place with a large, mature, private yard and a swimming pool. Sometimes certain of the employees would be allowed to use the pool. Then, after part of John’s family was moved back to Short Creek, the house was generally empty on the weekends. After that change, our family was allowed to use the pool occasionally on weekends. We would also help maintain the pool and clean up the areas around it.
As I mentioned before, these were times of great secrecy. When our family would go over to the Pool House to swim, we pulled into the driveway on an angle so that we could quickly exit the passenger side of our van and slip through the gate before any neighbors could see us. We swam fully clothed – jeans, long-sleeved shirts, long underwear for the boys. Ankle length dresses, pants underneath, long-underwear for the girls.) Everyone knew that John Wayman was very close to our prophet, Warren Jeffs. His life, his comings and goings, his residence – all about him was to be kept secret. To protect him and our prophet. This included his home in Las Vegas.
On January 22, 2012 Josiah was invited to go to the John Wayman Pool House with another employee to clean the pool and go swimming. Unfortunately, Josiah didn’t know how to swim. And neither did the man he was with – at least not well enough to know how to rescue Josiah when he got into trouble in the deep end of the pool.
One thing that you need to understand is that one of the core beliefs in the FLDS is that government and law enforcement are enemy #1. Not to be trusted. Not to be involved. The perceived image of the group was far more important than that the truth be told, or justice be served. If it ever came to a decision between the two, protecting the church’s image always won, hands down. The “Laws of the Land” never held more authority than anything the prophet said to do, no matter what it was. Never.
When Josiah’s companion at the pool realized that Josiah was in trouble, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t dare risk exposing John’s home to the authorities. Who can say how long he hesitated, or how he may have tried to rescue Josiah first, but at some point he realized he couldn’t save him and he needed to reach out for help.
Did he call 911?
He called NewEra and asked to speak with a fellow employee who was a certified EMT. This EMT told him to hang up and call 911, but he refused. He was too scared to. He wasn’t going to risk the wrath of God upon himself.
The EMT hung up and called 911 himself.
By the time the first responders reached the Pool House, it was too late for Josiah.
Some select men had rushed over from NewEra to be there and interact with them, (damage control) and I later heard one side of how that meeting went. We were told that the first responders didn’t really know how to handle such a calm reception. They were accustomed to hysterical people, crying, in shock, pleading, mourning for the life of someone who just drowned. But that was far from what they were met with: no emotion, no sorrow, just some men calmly making excuses for what had happened. This was portrayed as such an example of “Keeping Sweet” and acceptance of God’s will. Priesthood people aren’t a demonstrative people. Hysterics and crying showed weakness. This was more proof that we were different from the “gentiles.”
Oh, yes. We were definitely “different,” but was that a good thing?
It reminds me of the Short Creek flood in September of 2015. As the news stories started to be posted I pored over the pictures desperately searching for family that I hadn’t seen in years. I did find a few, but I was struck with something, too. In any other setting, any other town, when a tragedy of this magnitude occurred, you would expect to see people comforting each other. You would expect to see tears, and anxious expressions as the onlookers hoped for the best for their family and loved ones. But that wasn’t what I saw. Sixteen people were missing, and yet I didn’t see one tear. Not one anxious look. Not one person who seemed to be distraught. Instead, there was a bland, cold curiosity. Blank faces staring at the goings on. The people were void of emotion.
I couldn’t help but go back to my memories of what life was like for me in the last years I was in the FLDS. I remembered the pain, the fear, the sorrow. I remembered the thoughts of – almost envy – for those who passed away and were deemed faithful and exalted. As I looked at the faces in the pictures more closely, with an interest in looking for more than just a familiar face I recognized a familiar feeling instead. I recognized the hurt and fear buried behind those placid eyes. The feelings you hardly allow yourself to acknowledge, and would never admit to anyone. The storm behind the calm. I believe that there were those who were watching from the sidelines who felt a little of that envy that day. Especially the mothers. If they thought they could just be done, taking their children with them, and they could be free and safe from the sorrow that life had become, they would. Suffering is difficult, but knowing our children are suffering, or will suffer in the future, is so much harder.
At the time of Josiah’s death, I had a 16-year-old son, too. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for him if he had been sent away from home. It broke my heart to think that Josiah’s mother had been required to send her boy away. All because some men decided that he wasn’t worthy. Men who were guilty of far worse (as I came to understand in the coming months). Not just some supposed “sin,” but real abuses and crimes. Now, her boy was coming back home in a box.
Just 16 years old, and his life was snuffed out. His hopes and dreams – whatever they may have been – forever extinguished. I wondered if she had had the chance to tell him she loved him. How long had it been since she had spoken with him. Did he know she loved him? In his mother’s mind he died without “Priesthood.” He died in exile, not having had the chance to be brought back into the fold. He was damned forever as a Son of Perdition.
This I came to understand more fully when I attended his funeral.
Josiah’s funeral is one of those events in my life that is so burned into my memory I doubt I will ever forget it. I hope I won’t. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be remembered. His death should not have been in vain. If only it had shone a light on the real issues that put him there. If only it had brought real changes. If only he was the last boy to die because he was placed into a situation that he never should have been in. But sadly, he was not the last.
(Someday I will write about another boy, Rulon Jessop, who was crushed to death by the faulty forklift he was driving. I believe he was only 14-years-old.)
Josiah’s death and funeral came at a pivotal time in my life. A time when I had begun to give real consideration to the doubts and questions that I had spent a lifetime trying to “put on the shelf of belief.” Rules had become more strictly enforced, families were being torn apart and destroyed, and I could no longer see a benevolent god’s hand in any of it. The United Order, or Law of Consecration – had been put in place, but instead of equaling the playing field the gap between the haves and have-nots had become far, far wider.
I could no longer justify living a life that put children in danger, and then required that people lie about it. I had so many questions of my own. If we were God’s true people, why were these things happening? Why were parents put on the line and required to lie and take responsibility for things that were – to some degree – out of their control? They followed the directives of leadership, and if things went badly, they had to claim it was their fault. Leadership was to be protected at all costs. It was a privilege.
It was made abundantly clear in our meetings that any resistance to directives from leadership, or any hesitation to comply, would result in losing everything. And I mean everything. The church controlled your home, your job, your family, your food source, and your eternal salvation. The community, your family and your friends would cut you off entirely if you were judged and sent away on a repentance mission. It was actually frightening to see how quickly a person who had been revered and respected for decades became a pariah with one word from the “prophet.” For people who believed the prophet spoke for god, there were no choices. After all, how many times had we been asked how anything could be more important than obedience to God and earning our salvation?
There was some sort of investigation after Josiah’s death. For a time all the young boys were sent home from NewEra to avoid having the truth exposed of the labor violations being committed. Questions were asked by the authorities like why wasn’t he in school? What was a 16-year-old doing in Las Vegas without his family? Why was he at someone else’s home swimming during school hours? Etc., etc. But nothing really came of it. Before long it was back to business as usual.
I attended Josiah’s funeral that day in early 2012. I distinctly remember finding my way to a seat up on the balcony, against the wall. I was near the front of the room where I could look down on the stand and observe the proceedings. I watched as the viewing line made its way across the front of the room, solemnly shaking the hands of the family, and filing past the casket. The organ music adding to the solemnity of the occasion. I couldn’t help but empathise with Josiah’s mother as she stood next to her son’s casket. My heart broke for her.
My mother came and sat next to me, and started looking over her funeral program. I had already looked at mine and my sorrow was mixed with indignation even more. When my mother leaned over to me and said they had made a mistake on the funeral program, I already knew what she was talking about but I asked her what she meant anyway.
“They forgot to list who will be dedicating the grave.”
“It wasn’t a mistake, mother. There won’t be a dedication of the grave.”
I looked up to meet her eyes and saw her troubled and somewhat puzzled expression, so I explained.
“He was in Las Vegas because he was found unworthy. He drowned while he was still considered unworthy. Technically he’s not a member of the church, so there will be no dedication of his grave.”
“Well, that’s really too bad.”
I don’t know, for sure, what she meant and I didn’t ask. I was hurt, and angry, and I had a lot on my mind. For me, I was upset that they would deny a 16-year-old boy and his family such a simple comfort.
In the FLDS (as well as the Corporate LDS church) there is an ordinance performed where a grave is dedicated before the interment of the body. A man, holding the Priesthood, raises his arm to the square and says a dedicatory prayer, protecting the grave from the weather, animals and all other destructive elements, and setting it apart as a place of comfort for loved ones. As you may imagine, this ordinance can bring solace to those who grieve. A sense of protection, even beyond this life, that loved ones can, indeed, rest in peace.
During Josiah’s funeral, his family got up and sang some songs, speakers were assigned and gave their talks, but very little was said about the boy who had lost his life. No fond memories. No celebration of life. In truth, he was hardly mentioned. His family were in a tough spot. They stood at a crossroads of faith. We had been warned about “sympathy against authority.” When god handled someone it was not for us to feel sympathy for them. If we did, we were at risk of bringing the same condemnation upon ourselves. We had all heard the scripture quoted that “it would be better for them that a millstone had been hanged around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea” than for them to do anything that would cause them to lose Priesthood. If Josiah’s family was to show sympathy, or emotion, or sorrow for Josiah, they were in danger of being found unworthy as well.
His death was used as a warning and an example. For all those who had been found unworthy, this was a wake-up call as to the importance of getting back into the church. It was one more tool used by leadership to instill fear and greater obedience and submission in the people. Today was the time to be worthy, because if God was to take us in death tomorrow, we could be damned for eternity. Here was a young boy, laid out in his casket, to drive the point home.
A boy who had been told he wasn’t good enough. A boy who had been sent from his family, away from his mother, and put to work to support himself. He wasn’t allowed an education. He wasn’t allowed any real freedom, even though he was born in the freest nation on earth. In the end, he was expendable.
My own 16-year-old son had also been found unworthy. My husband and I were judged unworthy. Yet, I knew my son. I knew my husband, and most of all, I knew myself. Whatever measuring stick those men – who hailed themselves as judges – had used, they were wrong. I saw others that I knew were dishonest, abusive, and even cruel that had been found worthy. Families that I witnessed in extremely abusive behavior were found worthy. My shelf was definitely breaking.
When the formal announcement was made by Lyle Jeffs, that those who were worthy could no longer be allowed to live with the unworthy, my decision was made. There was no way I would ever send any one of my children away from me. That was a line I refused to cross.
By March of 2012 we fled the FLDS. We were one of the very few who got out intact. Myself, my husband and all of our children left together.
For those who want to claim that the FLDS are a religion that should be left alone, I have a strong warning against ignoring the crimes being committed. And I mean crimes. The SNAP fraud is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a crime where the numbers, and the evidence, doesn’t lie.
Right now I would dare to say that there are literally thousands of children who are not with either of their biological parents. Many are going hungry. Not because the money isn’t there to provide nutrition, but because those at the top are fueled by greed and entitlement. Only the best is good enough for them. As for the rest? “Let them eat cake.”
I’m not sure about the legality of having a 16-year-old working in a machine shop, I’m sure there are restrictions as to what they can and cannot do. I can’t say for sure what Josiah was given as tasks, but I can say that I know that boys much younger were in the shop nearly every day – boys who were too young to be there, and who were instructed to scatter and hide if any “outsiders” came around. As for Josiah working at NewEra, most likely the company either paid him cash, or his hours were reported under his mother’s name, an older sibling’s name, or possibly added to his father’s check. This is nothing new. I have seen it done time and time again. That way, the records don’t reflect the truth.
Unfortunately, much of the time with the FLDS, what you see on the outside is only the sugar-coated, false front they want you to see, that hides the evil, abusive, rotten core behind the illusion of rainbows and unicorns.
I hope that someday, boys will be allowed to reach adulthood with the freedom that they deserve. That they will grow up with some feeling of confidence that they belong. That they are worthy of a partner – especially one of their own choosing. That they will be allowed to get an education. That they will stop dying in industrial “accidents,” or dying alone while exiled from their families. Besides accidents, there has been a number of suicides. When all hope is lost, and you believe that God said you’re unworthy – especially when you can’t figure out what you did wrong, despair can get the upper hand.
It’s too late for those who took their own lives. It’s too late for those who died under conditions they never should have been placed in. It’s too late for Josiah. It’s too late for Rulon Jessop. It’s too late for far too many. Someday – soon – that has to change.
Special Thank YOU to Christine Marie for getting pictures of the grave for me.