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Boys Seek Salvation Outside Church

Excommunicated from a fundamentalist LDS sect for seemingly minor infractions, the teens are largely uneducated and ignorant of the world.

September 05, 2004|Angie Wagner | Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — Damned by his religion, denied by his family and left with nowhere else to go, the teenager slept in a cold tool shed just steps from a company owned by his relatives.

They went home at night to warm, cozy beds while Tom Sam Steed stole bread, cereal and nutrition bars from a gas station just to survive. He tried, several times, to kill himself, convinced that he was worth nothing.

His salvation came when he got a job cleaning carpets and finally left the control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its leader, Warren Jeffs.

Former members describe a religion that thrives on domination. Every detail of their life was scripted -- from plural marriages to what they could wear, who they could associate with and what job they could have.

In the last 4 1/2 years, more than 400 teenage boys have been excommunicated, many for seemingly minor infractions such as watching a movie or talking to a girl.

Former church members suspect something else is causing the banishment of young men. In a polygamous community, there are only so many women to go around. Older men don't want to compete with young men for wives. The boys have to go.

Now, they have been thrust into a society they have been taught is evil. They are homeless, uneducated, confused and unprepared for a world where they can make their own choices.

They are lost boys.


Sweaty and out of breath, four teenage boys barge into the kitchen for glasses of water after an exhausting game of basketball. They tease each other about who won, then stretch out on couches and chairs.

In many ways, they are typical teenagers. They brag about souped-up cars, listen to rapper Eminem, admire supermodel Heidi Klum, have seen the "The Matrix" multiple times and want to go to college.

But ask them how many brothers and sisters they have and it's clear that these teens have had unusual lives. Seventeen brothers and sisters for one, 21 for another. Another lost count after 300. Most of their fathers have at least two wives.

Almost all 11 boys gathered this day grew up in the "creek" -- the twin FLDS communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where most of the estimated 10,000 residents are church members, the largest polygamous group in the West.

The FLDS is different from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has disavowed polygamy and denounced the FLDS.

Living in the creek, along the Utah-Arizona border, means total submission to the church. Jeffs, whom many former members accuse of brainwashing, directs all parts of his members' lives. The church, through its charitable trust, owns the land its members build homes on, arranges marriages and requires members to wear long underwear at all times. Movies and television are banned. Basketball and football were taken away a few years ago, the boys say. Wives can be assigned to different men if the church orders it. Most members don't attend school past the eighth grade.

"We're taught the only way into heaven is through this church," said Steed. "If you leave, that's worse than murder."

But this restricted life is the only one they have ever known.

Some boys ran away or left after a family member did. Others were ousted for violations such as wanting to go to public school, something that Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney and church spokesman, denies.

Parker said it was hard to generalize about the boys, but noted they were not involved with the church anymore because of the choices they made.

"These people are minimizing the reasons for their not being part of the church anymore," he said. "They tend to be juvenile delinquents, they tend to have criminal problems, they have drug problems. They have all kinds of things going on with their lives that are incompatible with the church."

Once out of the creek, the boys mostly roamed southern Utah, living in flophouses or their cars, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, meeting up with other excommunicated members.

They can't return to their families because church members are forbidden from associating with them. Sometimes, parents secretly send money. But mostly they are on their own, homeless, some as young as 13.


Three years ago, Shem Fischer and his brother, Dan Fischer, helped a few excommunicated boys find jobs and an education in Salt Lake City.

Former members of the FLDS church, the brothers knew the struggles that the boys faced.

Dan Fischer, founder of Ultradent, a Utah-based dental products manufacturer, never lived in the creek, but was once a believer and at one time had three wives. Shem Fischer grew up in the creek and left three years ago at age 33.

He never had reason to question the church until he started working outside the community, doing sales and marketing for his family's cabinetry and interior design business.

The FLDS doesn't believe that man landed on the moon. When Fischer learned the truth, he was embarrassed: "It makes you really start questioning what else you've been duped on."

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