Followers finance polygamist leader
He’s been stripped from the board that controls more than $100 million of property in Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, and has been kept on the run by FBI agents.
But don’t think that Warren Jeffs, the fugitive leader of the country’s largest polygamist sect, isn’t living high on the hog.
He appears to be living a lavish underground lifestyle fueled by tens of thousands of dollars his followers have funneled through his immediate family. And many of his adult male followers seem to have followed his admonition to give him $1,000 a month, in addition to their normal church tithes.
Jeffs, 49, who was indicted by a Mohave County grand jury in June on charges of sexual misconduct for marrying underage women to much older men, also is likely spending the majority of his time in isolated parts of west Texas and the Nevada-Utah border as a nationwide manhunt continues, state and federal law enforcement sources say.
The arrest last week of Jeffs’ brother, Seth Steed Jeffs, near Pueblo, Colo., offered a revealing glimpse into Warren Jeffs’ life on the lam.
Seth Jeffs is being detained on local prostitution-related charges and a federal count of concealing a person from arrest: his brother.
According to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, Seth was stopped on Interstate 25 after his vehicle was reported to police for moving erratically.
The driver, Nathaniel Steed Allred, told police he had been paid $5,000 by Seth for “sexual services.”
Inside the vehicle, police found $142,000 in cash, seven cellphones and several envelopes containing thousands of dollars of prepaid credit cards and phone cards, and Warren Jeffs’ personal records. Authorities also found several hundred letters addressed to Warren from church members “relating to a variety of personal and FLDS matters,” according to the affidavit.
And Seth was carrying a cash-filled donation jar bearing his brother’s picture and a label that read, “Pennies for the Prophet.” It was the same photo used on wanted posters circulated by the FBI.
Seth later told officers that he was taking the materials from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints headquarters in Colorado City and Hildale to the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, where members of the church are building a huge, four-story temple. The sect has no connection with the mainstream Mormon Church, which banned polygamy in the late 1800s.
Seth also told officers he did not know where his brother was and that neither he nor other church members would assist the search because, “It would be stupid to tell anyone where he is because he would get caught.”
Since his indictment five months ago, there have been reported sightings of Warren in Utah, Texas, Florida and British Columbia.
The FLDS Church has a breakaway sect in Bountiful, British Columbia, just across the border from Montana, and retains ties to polygamist colonies in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, southwest of El Paso.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said his office has received “good information” that Jeffs has been a regular visitor to the FLDS sect’s ranch in Texas.
“He appears to come and go with impunity there,” Goddard said.
Ben Bistline, a Colorado City historian and former church member who still resides in the area, said he believes Jeffs is spending a lot of time in eastern Nevada because of the proximity to Colorado City and the state’s liberal laws on consensual sex with underage women. The FLDS also has business interests and land holdings in and near Mesquite, Nev.
“Wherever he is, he’s certainly not hurting financially,” Bistline said. “In addition to the church members giving their normal 10 percent tithing, he put the call out for every elder (men older than 18) to come up with an extra $1,000 a month for him.”
Colorado City and Hildale have a combined estimated population of 6,000, and almost all of the residents are sect members. Several hundred former residents of the towns have fanned out for construction projects at the Texas ranch and at another ranch the FLDS owns near Mancos, Colo.
Bistline said the donated money likely is being channeled to Jeffs through a series of “half a dozen” couriers like his brother Seth and other family members.
“You can rest assured he has a nice vehicle, a nice place to stay and that he’s supporting all his wives,” Bistline said.
Jeffs and four other members of the sect were stripped in June as trustees of the United Effort Plan, which owns almost all the land and buildings in the two towns. But investigators believe that millions of dollars were removed from the trust before the sect leaders were legally ousted.
“This guy has got a pretty good network of thousands of people and millions of dollars to work with,” said Mohave County investigator Gary Engels, whose police work led to the indictment of Jeffs and several other sect members last summer on sexual misconduct charges. “You can stay hidden a long time when you have resources like that. Plus, he stays on the move.”
Deborah McCarley, an FBI spokeswoman in Phoenix, said Jeffs has ardent followers “who will do whatever bidding he wants. It’s not like he needs to surface for stuff since they will do it for him.”
There also is the problem of the physical similarities among the many men in the Jeffs family. Two months ago, FBI agents in Salt Lake City thought they had Jeffs cornered at the city’s airport. But it turned out to be one of his nephews.
Two weeks ago, a surveillance photo shot at a Lehi, Utah, sporting-goods store appeared to be a dead ringer for Warren Jeffs. But it turned out to be his brother.
“Personally, I think they’ll get this kid (Seth) to talk and give up Warren,” Bistline said. “It’s not like we’re talking the brightest bulbs here. And he’s either going to have to talk or cool his heels in the cooler for a while.”