PHOENIX (AP) – The leader of a polygamous sect was indicted on charges that he arranged a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a man who was already married, prosecutors said Friday.
Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was charged with sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
Jeffs, 49, didn’t have sex with the teenager but arranged her marriage to a 28-year-old married man, said Mohave County Attorney Matthew Smith.
“He can’t marry someone else,” Smith said.
The 28-year-old man, whose identity won’t be released until the indictment is delivered to him, was charged with two counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual conduct with a minor.
If convicted, Jeffs would face a jail sentence ranging from four months to two years.
Calls left with Rod Parker and R. Scott Barry, attorneys who have represented Jeffs and the church in the past, weren’t immediately returned Friday afternoon.
Linda Kelsch, a spokeswoman for the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices For Polygamy, said she thinks anyone committing abuses – a polygamist or otherwise – ought to be prosecuted. But she said thinks it would be discriminatory to prosecute a case just because it involves plural marriage.
Jeffs’ whereabouts were unknown. He hasn’t been seen publicly in more than a year and is thought by some to be in Texas on a new church ranch.
Prosecutors asked a judge to allow authorities to release Jeffs’ name in hopes that it would help apprehend the church leader, Smith said.
Authorities said the girl is no longer a member of the church and that she is being protected.
Polygamy is practiced openly in Colorado City, a remote enclave in Arizona on the state line with Utah that is dominated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect split from mainstream Mormonism after the broader church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
The fundamentalist group touts plural marriage as a key to reaching the highest place in heaven.
Authorities in Arizona and Utah have put pressure on Jeffs and the church, recently petitioning Utah’s 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City to freeze some of the church’s assets.
Within the past few months, Arizona authorities set up a trailer with space for the state Attorney General’s Office, Child Protective Services, the Mohave County sheriff and victim’s advocates. It was the first independent governmental presence in the remote area since National Guard troops and state police staged a highly criticized raid to rout out polygamy in the 1950s.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said his office has tried for two weeks to serve Jeffs with the court order showing the state of Utah has been allowed to take temporary control of the church’s trust fund.
Shurtleff’s office has brought the church under increasing scrutiny amid allegations of sexual abuse, forced marriages and welfare fraud, although no criminal charges have been filed. He insists he’s not interested in prosecuting members for illegal multiple marriages – FLDS teaches that men must have at least three wives to reach heaven – but instead for other allegations of abuse.
Ross Chatwin, an excommunicated church member, said the criminal charges weren’t entirely unexpected.
He didn’t expect Jeffs to show up to defend himself on the charges – especially after the prophet stopped defending himself and the church in lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse and the wrongful banishment of teenage boys.
“He’s in hiding now, and he’ll never come out,” Chatwin said.
Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County Attorney’s office, said there were “probably hundreds” of other cases like this one that authorities haven’t found enough evidence to prosecute in the twin-border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said he hopes the indictments will encourage other victims to report crimes.
Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of the anti-polygamy group Tapestry Against Polygamy, cheered the ruling Friday when reached by phone at her Salt Lake City home.
“Hallelujah. Now if they can just get him,” said Erickson, a former member of different polygamous clan. “I truly believe it will ripple on back up to Utah, and affect what can happen to these groups.”