SALT LAKE CITY — Warren Steed Jeffs is a tall, lanky, rather bookish-looking man who has cast a broad shadow across 10,000 members of his polygamy-practicing church.
Four years ago, Jeffs took over leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that broke away from the Mormon church a century ago. Since then, he has exercised extraordinary control over followers, using a combination of zeal, charisma and intolerance for disloyalty.
Jeffs, 50, was arrested Tuesday just outside Las Vegas after being on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since May. He was wanted in Utah and Arizona on charges of arranging two marriages between underage girls and older men. The charges also include two counts of rape as an accomplice in Utah.
Despite his soft voice and slight frame, the 6-foot-3 Jeffs was described as an imposing figure on his federal wanted poster, which warns that he travels with armed bodyguards and should be considered dangerous.
He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children.
His church adheres to an early doctrine of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, who advocated polygamy. The mainline Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890 and denies any connection to such fundamentalist sects.
Since the early 20th century, the FLDS sect has made its home on the secluded Utah-Arizona state line. It has largely been left alone except for a 1953 raid in which 31 men and nine women were arrested for practicing polygamy. Authorities also took more than 250 women and children into state custody, drawing criticism that families were torn apart.
Historian D. Michael Quinn remembered Jeffs as cold and abrupt after a brief meeting in the 1990s.
Quinn had set up an appointment to speak with Jeffs’ father, Rulon, who was then president of the FLDS church. Quinn had spoken with Rulon Jeffs himself to confirm the appointment and arrived at the designated compound on time, he said.
“Out came the man that I later recognized as Warren Jeffs with two or three other men saying the appointment been canceled,” Quinn said. “In this interchange with me, it was very obvious to me that he had canceled his father’s plans and he was there to enforce that.”
Warren Jeffs assumed leadership of the church in 2002 after his father’s death. Rulon Jeffs, 98, had 65 children by several women and had led the church since 1986. Warren Jeffs reportedly took nearly all his father’s widows as his own wives. He is said to have about 40 wives and nearly 60 children.
Church dissidents contend the marriage of underage girls – some as young as 13 – had been rare before Warren Jeffs’ took over, but increased into the hundreds under his leadership. He expelled young men from the community to lessen the competition for brides. Older men were cast out for disobedience, and their wives and children were reassigned by Jeffs to other men – their new husbands and fathers.
“He’s broken up so many families,” said Anne Wilde from the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices for Polygamy.
“It makes me all the more grateful that I am an independent fundamentalist Mormon and that I don’t have a leader telling me what to do,” she said. “With Warren Jeffs it’s such a controlled community because of his controlling nature.”
When Jeffs’ prophesies of the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ did not happen, he blamed church members for their lack of faith, according to excommunicated members.
Under Jeffs’ rule, families in the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., have lived in squalor exacerbated by the $1,000 he asked members to add to their monthly tithe of 10 percent of their income.
Meanwhile his own family reportedly lived well behind a walled compound of mansions in Hildale. He also ordered the building of a compound with a large white temple in Eldorado, Texas.
In June 2005, Jeffs and five other men were removed as trustees of a trust established by church leaders in the late 1940s after allegedly mishandling its assets, including liquidating some properties to keep Jeffs in hiding.