One of the F.B.I.’s most wanted fugitives, Warren Steed Jeffs, the leader of an offshoot Mormon sect who was wanted for sexual offenses, was captured in the Las Vegas area after a highway patrolman stopped the vehicle he was in during a routine traffic check, officials said today.
The arrest of Mr. Jeffs is likely to send a signal to a polygamous community that had basically been run like a theocracy, in which thousands of followers ignored the rule of civil law for years.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation posted a ‘captured’ notice under the picture of Mr. Jeffs on its Web site today, where Mr. Jeffs shares the space with nine other fugitives, including Osama Bin Laden and others wanted for crimes ranging from murder to hostage-taking on the agency’s most-wanted list. A $100,000 reward had been offered for information leading to his capture.
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Mr. Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet from Colorado City, Ariz., is wanted on charges of arranging child marriages and having sex with a minor. The F.B.I. most-wanted list says that he was sought for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution; sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor, and rape as an accomplice.
He has been charged with sexual abuse, along with eight of his chief followers. The charges on which Mr. Jeffs was indicted in June 2005 maintain that he forced a 16-year-old girl to marry a 28-year-old already-married man.
“We want to try to make sure that the rule of law exists in Colorado City,” the Arizona attorney general, Terry Goddard, said at a news conference in Phoenix.
The search for one of America’s most sought-after fugitives ended last night at about 9. Mr. Jeffs and one of his wives were riding in a red 2007 Cadillac Escalade driven by his brother when they were stopped on Interstate 15, just north of Las Vegas, during a routine patrol because the license plates, paper tags from Colorado, were not clearly visible, the authorities said.
When the Nevada trooper thought he recognized Mr. Jeffs and questioned him, Mr. Jeffs gave an alias and produced a receipt for contact lenses, the authorities said. When the patrolman received consent to search the vehicle, he found references to the ‘prophet’ and Mr. Jeffs, who later identified himself correctly to F.B.I. officials, the authorities said.
The other two people in the car, Isaac Jeffs and Naomi Jeffs, 31, were released without charge.
The F.B.I. posting put up before the capture said Mr. Jeffs, 50 years old, was considered armed and dangerous, and may have traveled with loyal and armed bodyguards.
But an F.B.I. official in Nevada, Steven Martinez, said in a news conference today that Mr. Jeffs was taken into custody without violence. Mr. Jeffs was cordial but did not respond to questions, and said later in an interview with the F.B.I. that he thought he was being persecuted for his religion, officials said.
Authorities found more than $50,000 in cash, as well as cellphones, laptops, wigs, sunglasses, a G.P.S., police scanners and other items in the car.
Mr. Jeffs is being held in Nevada’s Clark County detention center on out-of-state warrants as a federal fugitive.
The United States attorney for Arizona, Paul Charlton, said at the news conference in Phoenix that the two charges of flight from prosecution would likely be dropped by the federal government and that the states would prosecute.
Law enforcement officials are coordinating the next step, including whether he will be seen in both courts and have the opportunity to post bond, an official said.
Mr. Jeffs will have the opportunity to fight extradition to Arizona if he wishes, Matt Smith, the Mohave County attorney, said in a statement. If he decides to waive extradition he will be taken to the places where there are charges and warrants pending.
Those are Mohave County where he faces three counts of conspiracy to commit sexual misconduct with a minor and five counts of sexual misconduct with a minor, and Washington County, Utah, where Mr. Jeffs faces two charges of rape as an accomplice, filed against him in April, 2006.
While a fugitive, Mr. Jeffs was still believed to have run the church compound in Arizona from afar, and was said by ex-church members to have 70 wives. The community, closed to outsiders, is one in which civil government and religious authority are one and the same, and young men are forced out to make sure that the old men who run the place have a ready supply of young brides.
Mr. Jeffs is the leader of a polygamous sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is considered a “prophet” by his estimated 10,000 followers. He filled a void in leadership of the church after his father, Rulon T. Jeffs, died in September 2002.
His sect has built a large retreat development in Eldorado, Tex., about 40 miles south of San Angelo, The Associated Press reported.
About 10,000 people in the United States and Canada follow the Fundamentalist Church, with the largest concentration of them in the twin border cities of Colorado City in Arizona and Hildale, Utah.
There, they form a place perhaps like no other in the United States, coming close to a theocratic state within a state that in many ways set them apart from mainstream America. There were plural marriages, and unusually large families.
The activities in the community have often appeared out of reach of law enforcement. Members of plural families have in the past come to the attention of state and local officials through occasional allegations of welfare fraud, tax dodging, domestic violence and child abuse.
But officials have said that cases were difficult to build, with trouble finding witnesses to testify.
In Hildale earlier this year, thousands of polygamists were engaged in a standoff over overdue property taxes of about $1.3 million for hundreds of houses.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an offshoot of the Mormon Church, which has disavowed polygamy for more than a century. The fundamentalist church had long paid the property taxes of its members, but the church hierarchy fell into shambles with Mr. Jeffs on the run.
Cathy Scott contributed reporting from Las Vegas, Nev., for this article, and John Dougherty from Phoenix.