SALT LAKE CITY – An indictment charging a reclusive church leader with arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a man who was already married could force him out of hiding and make him answer a series of civil complaints, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Friday.
Warren Jeffs, the leader of a polygamous sect was indicted in Arizona with sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. If convicted, Jeffs would face a jail sentence ranging from four months to two years.
Jeffs, 49, isn’t accused of having sex with the teenager but of arranging her marriage to a 28-year-old married man, said Mohave County Attorney Matthew Smith.
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Utah officials also have been trying to serve Jeffs with court papers severing his control over a wealthy trust that controls the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. A process server was turned away at a Texas ranch where Jeffs is believed to be sequestered.
But Jeffs couldn’t as easily resist criminal charges, and Arizona is likely to ask Texas authorities to execute an arrest warrant, Shurtleff said.
Once in Arizona’s custody, Jeffs will be required to answer an order issued by a Utah court approving a temporary takeover of the United Effort Plan, the church trust estimated to hold $100 million in assets.
“He’s going to be held accountable for the charges. That’s the bottom line,” Shurtleff said. “This sends a message that Warren Jeffs is not above the law.”
Jeffs is the subject of several other civil complaints filed by residents of Hildale and Colorado City. His nephew, Brent Jeffs, claims Jeffs sexually assaulted him when he was a child. Six “lost boys” say Jeffs banished them and other young men from the community. And Jeffs has been found in default by a Utah court for blacklisting another man, Shem Fisher, for failing to live by the church’s strict directives.
Jeffs’ Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been under increasing pressure amid allegations of sexual abuse, forced marriages and welfare fraud.
However, Linda Kelsch, a spokeswoman for the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices For Polygamy, urged authorities to act with caution against polygamists, charging them only with crimes other than consensual marriages.
“I don’t agree with using force (to arrange marriages), and I don’t agree with the state forcing these people into isolation because of their beliefs,” she said.
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 the polygamous Kingston clan. “I truly believe it will ripple on back up to Utah, and affect what can happen to these groups.”
Tapestry members have been critical of how officials have seemingly given a free pass by officials in Utah and Arizona, but hopes this is a first step in reigning in these groups.
“We felt like it would probably begin with the FLDS,” she said.
Ross Chatwin, an excommunicated church member who still lives in the area, said he hadn’t heard the news of criminal charges, but they weren’t entirely unexpected.
“We’ve been waiting for this to happen,” he said. “I knew it would happen sometime, but I didn’t know when.”
But it’s unlikely Jeffs would appear voluntarily to answer criminal or civil charges, Chatwin said.
Calls left by The Associated Press on Friday with Rod Parker and R. Scott Barry, attorneys who have represented Jeffs and the church in the past, weren’t immediately returned.
Associated Press writers Doug Alden, Debbie Hummel and Travis Reed contributed to this story.