Vacuum at the top: With the prophet jailed, candidates include one of his brothers
Even behind bars, Warren Jeffs won’t likely relinquish his power as the prophet his people believe him to be.
The FLDS leader, taken into custody Monday night on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, will for now find a way to stay in touch with his faithful followers.
“The fact that the prophet is in jail doesn’t change the fact he holds that position,” said Rod Parker, an attorney who formerly worked for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“So they are going to find some way to accommodate that,” he said. “They don’t change prophets; that would be against everything they believe.”
But those who have pursued him believe Jeffs’ power will be diminished by his capture and prosecution, if not end “his tyrannical rule,” as Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard put it.
Jeffs, an FBI most wanted fugitive, was caught after a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper had difficulty reading the temporary tags on a maroon Cadillac Escalade driven by Isaac Jeffs, a brother of the FLDS leader. Jeffs and one of his wives, Naomi, were passengers, authorities said.
The capture came more than two years after Jeffs was last seen publicly outside his polygamous community, based in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
The faithful will not be shaken because they were accustomed to his absence when he was on the run, said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and FLDS historian. He compared the situation to the late 1800s, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was able to function despite having to operate under intense federal pressure to renounce its practice of plural marriage.
The LDS Church did leave polygamy behind in 1890 as a condition of statehood, which was granted six years later.
Ross Chatwin, a former FLDS member, said Jeffs will retain control of the church with the help of compound leaders in such places as Mesquite, Nev.; Pringle, S.D.; and Eldorado, Texas.
If Jeffs’ communication with the outside world is choked off, however, Chatwin and others expect Jeffs’ brother Lyle Jeffs or Wendell Nielsen, said to be his first counselor in the FLDS church, to assume control.
“He [Lyle Jeffs] would love to take that authority onto himself,” he said.
Parker said that unless the FLDS members feel Jeffs has violated his own faith, they will stand behind him.
“That he takes this, suffers these consequences for his beliefs – it reinforces his position, it doesn’t weaken it,” he said.
The high-profile prosecution could make a martyr out of Jeffs among some church members – but also deepen the rifts in the polygamous community.
“I suspect this trial will exacerbate those divisions,” Driggs said.
Schisms already exist among Jeffs supporters and a break-off group in Canada; the Centennial Park polygamous community a mile away from Colorado City; and members of the Barlow family, some of whom have been expelled from the church after once holding high-ranking positions, Driggs noted.
“They have a history of divisions in the fundamentalist Mormon community, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it [the trial] caused more break-offs,” he said.
During court proceedings, the 50-year-old Jeffs, who is accused in Arizona and Utah of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men, may finally be deciphered.
“This arrest will crack his mystique and provide the opportunity for the entire story to be told in a court of law before a judge and jury,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of changes within the FLDS community as far as their feelings about him, their fear of him, their loyalty to him,” he said. “We’re hoping that will start to crumble.”
But some FLDS members, Parker said, simply see Jeffs’ capture as a repeat of history. LDS Church presidents Joseph Smith and John Taylor – whom the FLDS also claim as prophets – were also incarcerated because of their religious beliefs. Smith, hounded by a mob outside Carthage Jail in Illinois, was shot to death along with his brother Hyrum.
“[It is] a continuing story of persecution,” Parker said. “That is the way they see it.”
Ultimately, said Bruce R. Wisan, a court-appointed fiduciary who oversees a trust that holds most of the church’s property in Hildale and Colorado City, Jeffs’ capture may prompt some FLDS members to turn to mainstream society.
“The people may initially show or feel despair or sadness, and then they may feel anger after that at law enforcement. . . . And then maybe after that there is a recognition things are changing. They may have to work a little more with the system.”
But it won’t be a quick transition, he added.
“I don’t see that happening today, tomorrow, next week or next month,” he said. “It might be a year before this transition takes place, maybe two years.”
That seemed the case Tuesday in Hildale and Colorado City. While extra sheriff’s patrols were monitoring the twin towns, all seemed peaceful.
Women in long pastel or gingham dresses shopped at the Foodtown Mercantile and worked in the yards of their houses, most with closed blinds on the windows.
As always, they refused to talk to outsiders.
Reporters Nate Carlisle and Mark Havnes contributed to this report.
Sidebar: FLDS President Warren Steed Jeffs
Born Dec. 3, 1955, in San Francisco to Rulon Jeffs and Marilyn Steed. Second son of his father’s fourth wife.
Graduated from Jordan High School in 1973 and works as an accountant for his father.
Soon after, became a teacher at Alta Academy near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Later served as principal for 22 years until its closure in 1998.
Moved from Salt Lake Valley to Hildale, Utah-Colorado City, Ariz., in 1998 with Rulon Jeffs.
Assumed church leadership after his father’s 2002 death.
Spends most time on church affairs but is also described as an accomplished singer/songwriter.
Estimated to have about 75 wives, some of them formerly married to his father, and about 56 children.