Sect leader on FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list
May be seeking refuge in Canada or Mexico
HILDALE, UTAH—Prophet. Religious zealot. Dangerous extremist.
These are some of the words used to describe Warren Jeffs since the 50-year-old leader of a polygamous sect was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list recently alongside such figures as Osama bin Laden.
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Jeffs, head of a renegade Mormon splinter group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is accused of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men. He is charged with child sexual abuse in Arizona and being an accomplice to statutory rape in Utah.
Jeffs exercises extraordinary control over 10,000 or so followers who live mostly in the side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Church dissidents say that during Jeffs’ four-year rule, the number of underage marriages — some to girls as young as 13 — escalated into the hundreds. Families have been fractured in the process.
According to those expelled from the community, young men are sent away so as not to compete for brides; older men are cast out for alleged disobedience, and their wives and children are reassigned by Jeffs to new husbands and fathers.
“He’s committed some horrific crimes against people, and I think he views himself as untouchable,” said Carolyn Jessop, who fled an 18-year marriage to a man 32 years her senior.
Insiders are fiercely loyal and will not speak to reporters. Jeffs has not been seen publicly in nearly two years. An interview request faxed by Associated Press to a church-owned ranch in Eldorado, Tex., where some say he has moved headquarters, elicited no response.
“I think he’s a religious pervert, an extreme zealot or a religious extremist and a control freak,” said Richard Holm, who said he was thrown out in 2003, his three wives and 17 children taken without warning. “His leadership has totally disrupted whatever was good about the church.”
The sect adheres to the early doctrine of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith, who advocated plural marriage. The mainline Mormon Church renounced polygamy in 1890 and denies any ties to such fundamentalist sects.
Jeffs took the leadership in 2002 after the death of his father and took nearly all of his father’s widows as his own wives. He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children. Authorities say he may be crisscrossing the U.S. border to enclaves in Canada and Mexico.