Authorities stop vans; fugitive polygamist leader isn’t found
ST. GEORGE – Following up on an anonymous tip from the public that fugitive Warren Jeffs had been sighted, the Iron County Sheriff’s Office responded Friday afternoon to a remote area in Beryl Valley.
The tip sent law enforcement officers from both Iron and Washington counties on a search for two vans that were eventually stopped Friday afternoon on Red Hills Parkway, just off state Road 18 in St. George. Investigators said Friday night that Jeffs was not in either van and is still on the loose.
Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was indicted June 9 by a grand jury in Mohave County, Ariz., on two counts of sexual assault on a minor and one count of conspiracy to commit sexual conduct on a minor. Jeffs is also charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, a federal offense. Jeffs has been considered a fugitive from justice since June 27.
Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said his deputies did not approach the Beryl Valley home because deputies did not have probable cause.
“A tip (that a fugitive is there) is not probable cause (to go to the home),” Gower said. “There are some FLDS followers out there, but it’s not like it’s actually organized.”
Salt Lake City FBI public information officer Brent Robbins said Friday’s tip was erroneous.
“There was nothing to it,” Robbins said. “There was a tip, but we don’t know who called it in.”
The telephone tip came to the Iron County Dispatch Center, which broadcasted an attempt-to-locate request throughout Southern Utah at 4:37 p.m. The two vans were stopped at 5:04 p.m. by Washington County Sheriff’s deputy Cory Norman, who called for backup. St. George Police dispatched three cars to assist.
The two full-size passenger vans with dark-tinted windows were packed with men dressed in dark suits, attire usually favored by members of the polygamous sect that dominates the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The FLDS church teaches polygamy as part of its doctrine.
St. George police officers ordered the approximately 13 occupants of one van to exit the vehicle while they searched it. The other van was not emptied, but the sheriff’s deputy checked the van and did not see Jeffs.
Washington County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Rob Tersigni said the vans were filled with teenagers and young men.
Tersigni said according to information he received, the Iron County Sheriff’s Office was watching a house and called in the alert when deputies saw two vans loaded with individuals leave the remote area in Beryl.
Robbins said based on the information he had, Iron County deputies followed the vans to the county line and then called in the attempt to locate to Washington County dispatchers.
Tersigni said one of the vans was stopped because of improper lane travel, but no ticket was written nor were the occupants asked for names or identification.
St. George Police Chief Marlon Stratton said his officers all know what Warren Jeffs looks like. He said his officers are “on alert for Jeffs.”
A police scanner was found in one of the vans.
“In that situation (with a fugitive) they (dispatch) should probably not have announced it,” Tersigni said. “They could be seeing where we are and what we are watching, but I don’t know for sure. But, they do have (police) scanners.”
Iron County detective Jody Edwards said Jeffs and his followers are smart and have the funds to elude capture.
“They got the brother with $147,000,” Edwards said. “It would be a really good idea to send people in a couple of directions.”
Jeffs’ brother Seth was arrested on Oct. 28 in Pueblo, Colo. and faces federal charges of concealing a fugitive. The vehicle he was driving at the time of his arrest contained $142,000 in cash, $7,000 worth of prepaid debit and phone cards and a number of his brother’s personal papers.
Gower said unless there is further information, he considers the incident closed.
“We are not actively looking for him, and we are not authorizing overtime or assigning detectives to any part of this investigation,” Gower said. “But we’re here to support the FBI and help them out if they decide to do anything in Iron County.”
This is the third report of a Jeffs sighting in less than a month. Last month, he reportedly was seen at the Cabela’s store in Lehi. A few days later, he reportedly was seen fishing at Strawberry Reservoir in Northern Utah.
Robbins said the FBI is actively looking for Jeffs and that he does have a fugitive warrant out for his arrest.
“Whenever we get a tip that he has been seen in some location, we do whatever we can to determine the validity (of the tip),” Robbins said. “Somebody said he was in the area and in fact, he was not.”
About Warren Jeffs
Jeffs is known as the leader and prophet of a polygamous sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with an established following in the communities of Hildale and Colorado City.
CHARGES: Two counts of sexual assault on a minor on or about March 28 or 30, 2002, and on or between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2002; and one count of conspiracy to commit sexual conduct on a minor. A state arrest warrant was issued by the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, Mohave County on June 9, 2005.
Jeffs is also charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. A federal warrant on this charge was issued on June 27, 2005.
REWARD:The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona have offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to Jeffs’ arrest.
Reporters Jill Prichard Hunt and Brian Passey, and City Editor Ed Kociela contributed to this report.