HILDALE, Utah — While polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs has been a fugitive from the law for the past two years, he’s never loosened his powerful grip on the 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who live in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
People with a working knowledge of the insular communities suggest that Jeffs is likely to continue his hold on the faithful – even from behind bars. Jeffs was arrested in a traffic stop Monday night in Las Vegas.
“I think there’s a structure in place that if Warren got caught they’ll still carry out his word, and they’ll figure out how to keep communicating with him,” said Andrew Chatwin, a former church members who moved back to Hildale last year.
On Tuesday, women with plaited hair and long dresses hoed their gardens under the late summer sun, a few kids rode bikes or played basketball at the local school and men in pickup trucks drove through town casting wary looks to outsiders.
“They’ll stay loyal,” Chatwin said. “Warren’s not dead yet.”
At the Food Town grocery store, a manager was calling police to have media shooed from the parking lot.
“Can’t you see you’re bad for business?” he asked an AP reporter. “When you’re here, I can’t sell groceries.”
And across town at the local dairy store a group of young men loading stock behind the building said they “had no need to talk.”
Since May, the 50-year-old Jeffs has been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, charged in Utah and Arizona with felony sex crimes involving to arranging marriages between underage girls and older men.
Quietly, however, a few insiders were expressing sadness, said Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who in the past has defended the FLDS church and some of its members in court.
“I would say they were a little shocked,” Parker said. “Shocked to the point that they didn’t really even know how to respond.”
Polygamy has been practiced here for more than 100 years after early church leaders split with the mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when it abandoned the practice of plural marriage. Since then, Parker said, FLDS members have survived wave after wave of persecution, something that is stirred by the arrest of Jeffs. “They are reliving a history here,” he said. “It’s just sort of reinforcing that this is their burden … and I think it may make them stronger and more insular as a group.”
It’s unclear if anyone from church leadership is poised to take the reins while Jeffs is locked up.
Various men in the church have been assigned as local “bishops” here and in church enclaves in British Columbia, Colorado, South Dakota and Texas while Jeffs has been in hiding, but ultimately he always the final say, Chatwin said.
Jeffs’ capture is unlikely to affect work being done by Bruce Wisan, a Salt Lake City accountant appointed by a Utah judge last year to manage the church’s United Effort Plan Trust. The $100 million trust holds most of the property in Colorado City and Hildale and was placed under Wisan’s guardianship to prevent Jeffs and other church leaders from using its assets for personal gain.
In the past, the trust has been used to punish disobedient members by forcing them out of their homes. Under Wisan, the trust is being reformed to give residents a chance to own those properties.
“I don’t think it will have any impact on what I’m doing,” Wisan said. “But I don’t think it will change much in town. Warren has controlled them from afar and I think he’ll still be able to control them from jail.”
But Chatwin said the arrest may provide a window of opportunity for some members who silently have questions about the state of the FLDS church. It may also come as a surprise to the fiercely loyal members who consider Jeffs an untouchable prophet of God.
“It will shake people’s testimony,” Chatwin said. “It will make some stronger and it will make some weaker.”