“The prophet wants you out.” With those words Johnny Jessop, 13 years old, lost the only life he’d ever known. He was kicked out of his house and banished from his hometown, Colorado City, Ariz. He was taken away from his mother and sent into the world with no money. “All I had was some clothes,” says the freckle-faced Jessop, now 16. “I didn’t know what I was going to do or what would happen to me. I told my mom goodbye, and she was crying, and I didn’t know what to say to her. So I just turned and left.”
The “prophet” who ripped Jessop from his family was Warren Jeffs, 49, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical religious sect of some 12,000 members that is not recognized by the mainstream Mormon church. In the past five years, according to authorities in Utah and Arizona, as many as 400 boys have been pushed out by the FLDS, ostensibly for offenses like Jessop’s—he snuck away to spend three days with friends in the nearby town of Hurricane, where he enjoyed some of the things the FLDS forbids, such as watching TV and listening to music.
But law officials suspect another, more sinister reason. They believe the male elders of the FLDS, which unlike the Mormon church practices polygamy, banished the boys to eliminate competition for the sect’s young female members. Experts believe that Jeffs, for instance, may have as many as 70 wives. “These girls have to be given over to the older men, and so you have to do something with the boys; that’s why they trump up these charges against them,” says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office is investigating alleged abuses of these boys. “We hear it over and over again from people who have come out: women, men, boys and girls. It’s as simple as basic math.”
The FLDS counters that the boys are expelled solely for disciplinary reasons. “This is a very strict group with a strict code of conduct, and when people don’t comply, they are asked to leave,” says the sect’s attorney Rod Parker, who believes only around 200 boys have been expelled over the past few years. “The claims that these accusations against [the boys] are trumped up is really not true.”
Still, there are so many of these abandoned children who have come from the Arizona-Utah border area that they have a name—they are known as the Lost Boys. According to legal advocates who have worked with many of the boys, some were told to pack their things and given hours to leave; some were driven to other towns and left by the side of a road. The lucky ones go into foster care or get adopted by concerned local families. Many more seek out one another’s help and live together in packed mobile homes and flophouses. Others strike out on their own, finding shelter in abandoned cars or unheated shacks. A few scratch out small paychecks working odd jobs or turn to drugs or prostitution. “Some of my best friends are pretty twisted and messed up over what happened to them,” says Dean Barlow, 20, who was kicked out of his Colorado City community for smoking when he was 18 and lived with 20 other Lost Boys in a flophouse until they were evicted for not paying rent (he now has a construction job and an apartment in St. George, Utah). “Some of them are hooked on drugs and alcohol and getting in trouble with the cops. I blame it all on Warren Jeffs. I’d like to take a bat to him; he’s ruined a lot of lives.”
Adding to the tragedy is the boys’ naïveté about the world into which they are thrust. Because the FLDS bans so many common teenage practices—such as playing video games, team sports and even dating—the boys emerge hopelessly sheltered and lacking in social skills. “Sixteen-year-old kids have the speech and mannerisms of 8-year-olds,” says Flora Jessop, 36 (no relation to Johnny), an antipolygamy activist who has taken in several Lost Boys over the years and who has referred dozens of others to counseling and rehab programs. “Some need to be shown how to do simple things we take for granted. I’ve sent kids into a store to buy a soda, and they didn’t know what to do. It’s unimaginable to most of us, but these aren’t your average kids. These are truly Lost Boys.”
Beyond this there is an emotional pain shared by many of them. John Lee Fischer was 15 when sect elders broke up his grandfather’s family and “redistributed” some members to other families for reasons he never learned. “It was devastating,” says Fischer, 20, cringing at the memory. “All we were told is, ‘It’s the Lord’s will.'” Taught that their bad behavior has condemned them to Hell—and is the reason they were split from their families—the boys often blame themselves and feel a sense of rootlessness. “I was so depressed because I got ripped away from everything I knew and believed in,” says Sam Ike, 22, expelled five years ago for kissing a girl. “I didn’t know why I was even alive. I lost all hope. We all did.” More than anything, some of the boys simply miss their mothers, who out of loyalty to the church—or fear of being expelled themselves—often do not speak to their sons again. “Just recently they made it so I couldn’t talk to my mom anymore,” says Johnny Jessop, whose mother moved to an FLDS enclave in Texas. “She was my best friend in the whole world, and now it’s this big thing for us just to talk. I miss my mom a lot.”
Many of the Lost Boys—who were assigned manual labor at a young age while in the sect—have a solid work ethic that allows them to find jobs in construction. But the emotional scars most of them have are a major reason why it’s so difficult to work them back into mainstream society. “These boys are suffering inside, and we are not able to help them until they’ve been through psychological counseling,” says Dan Fischer, 56, a Salt Lake dentist who has spent the past two years trying to find and help the boys (see box). Fischer provides money for therapy, loans and job training to the boys. But another obstacle is that “the younger ones can’t get insured or sign up for school without a parental signature,” he says. With that in mind, Fischer is backing legislation that lowers the legal age for emancipation in Utah from 18 to 16.
The phenomenon of so many parentless boys roaming the cities has not gone unnoticed by authorities. Jeffs, who is the target of several lawsuits, including one brought by a group of Lost Boys, moved out of his Colorado City compound and disappeared two years ago; he is currently under indictment on a criminal sex charge—for allegedly arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and an already married 28-year-old man—and he is being sought as a fugitive by the FBI. Shurtleff, unable to prosecute Jeffs, has the option of going after the parents who, on church orders, expel their own sons. Shurtleff has considered doing this but so far has been unable to find anyone willing to testify against his parents. “One boy told me he went back to see his mother and she looked at him and slammed the door in his face,” says Shurtleff. “I asked, ‘Do you want me to go prosecute your mom and dad for doing this?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s not their fault. Just make it so I can go home again.’ It is truly gut-wrenching stuff.”
The sad reality is that most of the Lost Boys will not be able to go home again. The best they can do is hope to find a new home and to somehow compensate for the childhood they lost. Ike now has an apartment, a job and a wife, but “I still have this hollowness,” he says. “I still miss my home. All I had known my whole life was wiped out, and that leaves you sort of empty.”
Johnny Jessop, who rebelled against the FLDS’s strict rules by wearing a Metallica T-shirt under his required blue shirt and playing video games on the sly, is only now beginning to get over the torment of his first few months away from home. “I would stay in people’s houses, but they would get sick of me because I didn’t do anything,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to school. I only went to a week of eighth grade, but then I got kicked out. I’d walk around to people’s houses trying to convince them to let me work on their lawns just to make money to eat. I hardly ever ate. I got really scrawny.”
Then a friend told him about Dan Fischer. Earlier this year Fischer became Jessop’s legal guardian, giving him the first semblance of normalcy he has felt in three years. He is also enrolled in high school again. Still, like so many Lost Boys, he misses the family he was torn from and longs to see them again. “It is a mixture of anger and sadness,” he says. “In some ways I am angry at myself because I was the one that ruined it with them, and sometimes I am angry at them for being so brainwashed. I hope someday I can help some of them get out.”
Alex Tresniowski; Oliver Jones; Cathy Free in Utah