Warren Jeffs, the fugitive leader of a fanatical polygamous sect and one of the FBI’s most wanted men, had told his 10,000 followers he would never be taken alive. His words raised fears that he might try to conclude his fearsome reign in a blaze of glory. But the end, when it came, was far more mundane.
After three years on the run, his red Cadillac was pulled over just north of Las Vegas late on Monday night by a traffic police officer who noticed his licence plate was not fully visible.
The chance arrest brings to an end one of the stranger chapters in the modern history of the American west. For the past four years Mr Jeffs has run the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (known as the FLDS) like the feudal chief of a polygamous tribe from a string of fortified compounds almost entirely outside the reach of state law, which prohibits polygamy.
The law officers who have spent the past few years trying to track him down were elated yesterday, and relieved that the hunt did not end like the fiery siege of another sect, the Branch Davidians, in their compound in Waco 13 years ago.
“It was just luck. It was a cop doing his job, and noticing that the tags on his car were hidden, and he did a routine stop,” Mark Shurtleff, the Utah attorney general, told the Guardian yesterday.
“The good news is that Jeffs wasn’t driving with his bodyguards. He was just with his wife and brother. If we had had ultimately to go into his compound on probable cause he was there, the outcome could have been much worse.”
Culture of abuse
Mr Jeffs is wanted in Utah on charges of being an accomplice to rape for forcing an underage girl to marry an older man. He has been indicted for a similar offence in Arizona. But those formal charges are widely seen as being the tip of a particularly unpleasant iceberg.
Under Mr Jeffs’ reign, a culture of abuse thrived at the FLDS. The fundamentalist sect broke away from the mainstream Mormon church in 1890 when it renounced polygamy. Warren Jeffs formally inherited command from his father, Rulon, in 2002 but he had run it for several years before. In that time, hundreds of teenage girls were allegedly shared out among Mr Jeffs and his male lieutenants. The 50-year-old leader is reported to have fathered more than 50 children by 40 wives.
Young boys, seen as potential sexual rivals to the elders, were driven outside the church’s main settlement on the Utah-Arizona border and abandoned. Twenty church members who rebelled against Mr Jeffs’ leadership were thrown out of the sect in 2004, and their wives and children were redistributed among the other men.
Jon Krakauer, who wrote a book on Mormon fundamentalism called Under the Banner of Heaven described Mr Jeffs as “a tall, bony man with a bulging Adam’s apple, a high-pitched voice, and a frightening sense of his own perfection in the eyes of God”.
Every FLDS member had to abide by an elaborate set of rules. No television, newspapers or outside influences were allowed. Long underwear had to be worn even in the ferocious heat of summer, and female members had to wear old-fashioned long gingham dresses. Children were taught to believe that Mr Jeffs was divinely ordained and infallible.
“What we hope the arrest will do is send a message to the people who lived under his thumb that he is not above the law, not protected by God, and we hope that will encourage more witnesses to come forward,” Mr Shurtleff said. “Now I guess if God is protecting him he can do it in court.”
Margaret Cooke, a former FLDS member, who still has relatives in the sect, said: “It makes me happy he’s not in direct power any more, and I hope one day my daughters down there will see that he is not this great person.
“I feel bad that they believe in someone who is so evil … He tears families apart and tells people how to live. He’s taken innocent lives and pretended he was God and ruled over them. His crimes are against humanity – his people.”
Arizona’s attorney general, Terry Goddard, hailed the arrest on local radio as: “The beginning of the end of … the tyrannical rule of a small group of people over the practically 10,000 followers of the FLDS sect.”
Ms Cooke was not so sure. “It doesn’t change a whole lot because they are pretty stubborn people and they’re pretty brainwashed,” she said.
Vicky Prunty, who runs a support group for abuse victims in Salt Lake City called Tapestry against Polygamy, agreed: “This is not the end to the mindset of the cult. There are many Warren Jeffs out there. Many of the members will become splinter groups, but this is a start.
“It is a good day because it will cause his people to maybe think for themselves. When a leader is put behind bars and they don’t see the bars are loosened it gives them reason to think.”
Aug. 30, 2006
Julian Borger in Washington