BOISE, MARCH 4, 2006--"Dere's dis old joke that goes, 'Why do you always take two Mormons if you go fishing?'" whispers the young, dark-haired man hiding behind a large patch of sagebrush. He and I are lying facedown on a hillside overlooking the fairway of a golf course. It's cold outside, but we're both warm inside our desert-colored army surplus fatigues. He squints through a pair of cheap binoculars while I wait for the answer to his riddle. Somewhere nearby, a rock chuck chatters angrily in our direction.
"Da answer is, 'Because if you only take one, he'll drink all your beer,'" he says as he hands me the binoculars and points toward the putting green about 50 feet away. There, I see what we're looking for: another young man--a caddy--with sandy blond hair, wearing a white t-shirt and black jeans. He's sitting in a golf cart and nervously sipping a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon while three portly middle-aged golfers flail helplessly in a nearby sand trap. But before I've even finished focusing the lenses, my companion leaps up and sprints down the hillside, bellowing a high-pitched war cry--"EEEEEYAAAAA!"
The golfers look up in alarm, clearly confused by the sight of the character barreling toward them. As my companion sprints onto the green, he rips off his camo covering to reveal a brilliantly clean white shirt, skin-tight black leather pants and a necktie tied in a perfect half-Windsor.
The golfers respond instantly. All three drop their clubs and run, arms waving over their heads, toward the clubhouse. One starts to yell for help, but trips over a stray wedge and lands heavily, face-first, next to the flag. The figure in white runs right by the prostrate hacker. He's not interested in these drunken apostates.
The young man in the cart is the last to notice his pursuer. He spits a cloud of beer, chokes out a panicked cry--"DANG!"--and tries to scramble away. But it's too late. The aggressor leaps and tackles the caddy into the sand trap. He grabs the beer, pours it over the young man's head, and delivers a series of brutal backhand and forehand slaps to his face, accentuating each blow with a different word:
The victim makes no attempt to defend himself.
The man in the leather pants picks up the empty beer can and smashes it on the caddy's forehead. Then he helps the young man up, brushes him off, and the pair begin slowly walking back toward where I am still crouched with mouth agape.
As they get closer, I can see that their formerly clean white shirts are both drenched in beer and smeared with the blood flowing freely from the caddy's broken nose. As they get to where I'm standing, the dazed youngster finally sputters a weak protest.
"It wadn't even my beer," he says.
"One more word, and I'll beat da livin' p'toot outta you all over again," warns his attacker. He turns to me: "Remember that joke I told you?"
"Well, I'm that second Mormon, boyee!" He smiles, makes an "M" sign with the middle three fingers on his right hand and ruffles the young man's hair affectionately. The young man smiles back weakly.
It's only my first day imbedded with Idaho's only Mormon gang, but I can already tell I might be in over my head. As we walk up the hill to where the gang-leader's ride--an orange 1985 Ford Econoline van--is parked, I glance back at the putting green. The fallen golfer still hasn't moved. We drive away.
The Gang's All Here
As we drive to the gang's headquarters, I get filled in on their bloody history. Their full name is "Moroni's Army Defending Everything's Underlying Purpose," after Moroni, the angel who showed church founder Joseph Smith the location of his famous golden plates, but the members prefer to go either by the shortened acronym, or by Moroni's Army for short--and I'm not about to argue over syntax with these tough customers. The gang's approximately one dozen members come from every walk of life--well, not every. They actually all grew up in Nampa, all worship at the same ward, all live with their parents and almost all carpool together to work at the same call center. But before settling into this deceivingly benign-sounding routine, one of them--the gang's leader, who delivered the disciplinary beating on the golf course--went out and saw the world in a way that changed him forever.
"On my mizzission, I got sent over to this town called Caldwell," he recalls. "It's, like, at least three wards from here."
Back then, he says, his name was "Jared." And over his grueling two-year residency in Caldwell, he handed out dozens of pamphlets to complete strangers on a daily basis. And in return, he received beatings from all kinds of different people: white Nazarenes, Hispanic Catholics, atheists, Jews, some Buddhists visiting from Ontario, Oregon, and even a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses who knocked on his door by mistake. Once, he recalls, he and another missionary--also named Jared--were run off the road by a southern Baptist driving a teal minivan. The pair sat on the side of the road picking gravel out of their church-mandated undergarments, when his partner introduced him to a different, darker type of Mormon history than the one he had heard growing up.
"He told me 'bout these hardcore homies, went by the name 'Danites,'" the leader recalls. "And this one cat, name of Porter Rockwell." The Danites, he learned, were a violent Mormon vigilante group in the early days of the church, who systematically intimidated--and in a few suspected cases, murdered--enemies of the church. Rockwell, often known as "the Destroying Angel of Mormondom," a one-time member of the Danites, was also the infamous bodyguard of both church founder Joseph Smith and later prophet Brigham Young, as well as a notorious gunfighter and murderer in his own right. While both Rockwell and the Danites' connection to the early prophets and church administration has been hotly debated over the years, most in the church have historically tried to distance themselves from these shady chapters.
But the Danites' old-world message found a willing and opportunistic vessel in the two vengeful missionaries. They decided to reinvent the group for the twenty-first century, a time when even though the church no longer faces open persecution from other religious groups, the leader says, "We're still getting hassled by gentile suckas."
After their tour of duty, the pair moved back to Nampa and Jared--the leader--began calling himself "Adam."
"Like half of our other friends wuz also named 'Jared,'" he recalls. "I juss thought that'd get all confusing, unless our gang was called 'Da Jareds' or sumpin."
From their headquarters in a tree-fort in Adam's parents' backyard, he and Jared introduced their warlike philosophy first to their church's basketball team, the 41st Ward Lakers. Within weeks, the team had changed their name to the Dribblin' Danites. Jared began growing out hair to resemble the shaggy Porter Rockwell, who was often known as "the Mormon Samson."
With no other Mormon gangs as competition, the Dribblin' Danites--who quickly changed their name to the scarier-sounding Moroni's Army--were able to establish the most brutal religious protection racket in all of Canyon County. They started small, with schemes like shaking down lazy church members for past-due tithes, and by doing beer raids on the homes of local inactive or "jack" Mormons, pouring the beer out, and then recycling the bottles. By the end of the army's first year, they had progressed to dealing in black-market church undergarments, forging Eagle Scout badges and staging unofficial "singles ward" dances that were little more than indoctrination parties for future members.
And they did it all without the knowledge or permission of church officials, which is just fine by Adam. He says that his mission--so to speak--is one the church probably wouldn't understand, and definitely wouldn't allow.
"I know how that bizness goes," he says. "They'd get all uppity, and I'd get all excommunicated. Then, my momma'd be like, 'Oh my freaking heck!' Fetch that jive, man."
As we pull up to the gang's current unofficial hideout--an elementary school playground just outside of Nampa--I immediately see that while Adam can be a brutal leader, he and Jared also use their ill-gotten wealth to take care of their own. Of the 10 serious-faced young people present, all wear brand new black Jordache jeans--and according to one 17-year-old member named "Joseph," they almost never wear the same pair twice. Next to the four-square court, I see several large boxes of the most beautifully woven "friendship bracelets" I've ever seen. One member tells me the bracelets are sold for big profit overseas, after being produced at an underground factory manned by a Cub Scout pack the gang conquered in a streetfight. I am never able to confirm the rumor, but the bracelets are clearly significant. Moroni's Army members often wear four or even five on each arm, and flashing a bare arm covered in the colorful woven threads is second only to the three-fingered "M" as the gang's official "sign."
And then there is the food at the gang's potluck table--oh, the food! It's a veritable orgy of mildly delicious colors and smells: White bread so white, you'd think it was made by Eddy himself; casseroles of all colors and varieties--crispy tater tot, green bean, and Jared's specialty, tater tot and green bean, topped with French-fried onions--and ambrosia salads with marshmallows as big as hand-grenades. And of course, the caffeine-free soda and "orange drink" flow freely from large two-liter bottles. Only Adam and Jared are allowed to drink their soda straight from the bottle, a sign of their high standing in the gang.
After we gorge ourselves and get a healthy sugar-buzz, I meet the other gang members--tall, pale, handsome boys with names like Jaren, Joe, Jared No. Two (the boy who received the beating on the golf course), Josiah, and doe-eyed girls named Josephina, Jaredina, "Female Gang Member No. Three," and of course, Adam's steady lady, Kendra.
Kendra said she came to know Moroni's Army when she was walking past a cemetery one afternoon and saw Adam and Jared indulging in one of their favorite hobbies: writing down the names on gravestones, in order to convert dead strangers to Mormonism.
"Most Latter-Day Saints that I know, they, like, only baptize their own dead relatives," says the soft-spoken 18-year-old. "When I saw him taking down just random names in the cemetery, I knew right away he was a real thug. Just the one I was looking for."
Moroni's Army members claim to have collected over 1,000 names from local cemeteries over the last two years. And while none of these names have been turned over to the LDS church for an official baptismal ceremony, Adam says the point of the endeavor is just to let everyone--even the dead--know that Moroni's Army is the baddest group of holy rollers around.
"Converting the dead ain't no thang," Adam says. "Even dead folks still have the choice to either follow the truth or not. We just like to fetch with their minds is all. We'll convert anyone, anywhere, anytime. We just don't give a fetch."
It's a week before April Fool's Day, the end of my tenure with Moroni's Army, and the once-proud gang is quietly coming apart at the seams. All of the active members are packed into Adam's Econoline, and we're on a campaign to some of the group's most sacred spiritual sites. First, we're going to go visit Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. Then, all the gang members are going to ceremonially pour some soda on the ground next to Porter Rockwell's grave in Salt Lake City cemetery--"for all our homies dat passed to tha otha side and got dey own universes," Adam says. And finally, we're going to Lagoon.
A few members are grumbling about the itinerary, saying that by the time they get to the popular theme park, the line for the new ride "Ladybug Bop" will be too long. Adam, who has recently been drinking several two-liter bottles of soda a day, is quick with a backhand or a "Shut the fetch up."
But of more immediate concern, I'm sitting in the back of the van with army co-founder Jared, who is whispering some things to me that, if Adam heard them, would probably be regarded as outright treason--and grounds for a beating, or worse.
"All his 'fetch this' and 'fetch that' is a bunch of Caldwell bullspit," Jared says. "Where I come from--North Nampa--we say 'fletch.' Saying 'fetch,' man ... that's blasphemy. It's almost a real swear, if you ask me." I want to tell him to keep to keep his voice down, but he's not in much danger of being heard over the LDS gangsta rap blaring out of Adam's speakers, so I let him talk.
"And what the crap is up with those tater tot casseroles he's always bringin' to the pizzity pot lucks?" the angry young Caucasian continues. "They've got, like, those, flat round tots on top. In my 'hood, if you bring anything but the classic cylinder-shaped tater tots, you're asking to get your flipping butt kicked."
Unbeknownst to Adam, Jared says he and some of the other soldiers--including Kendra--have been talking about splitting away from Moroni's Army to form their own clan, the "Hoard Of Avenging Xtians." His new gang, he says, would focus solely on the friendship bracelet racket and avoid the violence Adam is increasingly relying on. And of course, they'll get away from the bad language.
"I'm just getting too old for this fudged up crud," the 19-year-old says, looking out the window.
Jared says he already has the initials of the new gang scrawled across his chest. He would have had them tattooed, but since current prophet LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinkley opposes tattoos and piercings, Jared says he has "no choice" but to draw on the letters in permanent marker every morning. Below them he still draws his traditional Moroni's Army tat: A sad clown making the gang's "M" sign with his fingers and holding up a sign reading "Ruff Missionary 4 Eva." Even if he leaves the gang, Jared says, he'll keep penning that image on his stomach daily. He has to.
"I didn't choose this life. It chose me--fuh real," he says.
But two days later, the bombshell hits. While Adam and I are standing in line for Ladybug Bop, he notices that Jared and Kendra have been missing for several hours. He grabs one of the younger members and shakes him until the truth comes out: the couple told some other members they were going back to the van "to look for Kendra's missing CTR ring."
Adam is steaming as we sprint back to the parking lot. All of the other army members have disappeared, knowing what is to come and not wanting to bear the brunt of Adam's holy wrath. He throws the van's back doors wide, and there we see it: Jared and Kendra, tongues buried in each other's mouths, holding hands in a passionate white-knuckle grip. Adam loses it.
"Dang you! Dang you both to crappy heck-butt fudge, you craptastic, mother-fetching BUTTHOLES!" he screams. "I thought we was clear, bro! Kendra is mine, yo? Your lady is Female Gang Member No. Three!" Kendra covers her ears and runs away crying, but Adam lunges for Jared, who grabs his former partner and pushes him onto the ground.
"Man, you just don't get it, Adam," Jared says. "Me and Kendra, we've been frenching for weeks! We're hella into first base. And you know why? You've changed, man. I found some golden plates the other day, and you know what they said? You're a fletching jerk."
Adam winces when he hears this new word. Maybe he knows it's a sign of the passing of the old guard, and the rise of a newer, more professional kind of Mormon gang. I don't have time to ask. All I can do is continue to scribble notes furiously, realizing how lucky I am to be present at such a momentous changing of the guard.
Adam slowly rises and gets into his van. With a final "Fudge you, hosebags!" he peels out, alone, into the desert. I'm wondering how we're possibly going to get back to Boise in time to meet my deadline, when I see Jared pull out a cell phone.
"Mom? ... Mom--Mom, will you tell Jason and Allie to shut up? I'm trying to talk! Goll! Mom ... We're fletched. Will you come get us?"