Authorities have dogged Warren Steed Jeffs and the fundamentalist church he controls for several years, targeting polygamy, fraud and corruption in the twin hamlets of Colorado City and Hildale on the Arizona-Utah line.
They struggled to obtain convictions against leaders, however, because women and children in the tight-knit group refused to testify.
With the arrest of Jeffs, officials are hopeful that victims of sexual abuse may feel safe to step forward. Jeffs, 50, was captured late Monday near Las Vegas. He was wanted in Arizona and Utah on felony charges in connection with arranged marriages involving minor girls.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
“Until today, Warren Jeffs was able to say, ‘I’m above the law,’ and his followers were terrorized by that,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said. “He had divine intervention that would smite them. . . . His control has got to be weaker than it was yesterday.”
Goddard said he has no illusions that the church will dissolve with Jeffs behind bars. Jeffs is so-called prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has polygamous communities in Arizona, Utah, Texas and Canada. The church split away from the mainstream Mormon faith more than a century ago over polygamy, and there is no present-day affiliation.
“Warren Jeffs had said he’s untouchable and answers only to God and God protects him and keeps him safe,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. “This is a crack in that veneer. For those who fear him, they’ll see he is behind bars like any other common criminal.”
Former church members seemed less certain of the impact, suggesting that the spiritual leader may only increase his status while in government custody.
“It changes the control and command a little bit,” said Merril Stubbs, 29, a former church member. “But they believe strongly in what they call the one-man doctrine. And as long as he’s alive, Warren Jeffs is the man. I think it will solidify their core even more. . . . He is God to them, not just a prophet. He’s God on Earth.”
Church exile Brigham Fischer attended the sect’s Alta Academy in the 1990s when Jeffs was principal. He doesn’t think the arrest will minimize Jeffs’ influence in the church.
“He’s going to be a martyr. They’re going to believe in him now more than ever,” said Fischer, 33, who now lives in Macon, Ga.
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented Jeffs in the past, agreed with that assessment.
“They feel very isolated right now,” Parker said, referring to church members.
“This will be viewed as an example of them being treated unfairly because they don’t see Warren Jeffs as a criminal. They see it as persecution.”
Isaac Black, 34, said he was relieved to hear of Jeffs’ capture. Black grew up in Colorado City and left because, he said, Jeffs became too controlling.
Black, who now lives in Ogden, Utah, knows that people from his old community, including his parents who still live there, may not share in his relief.
“Their leader’s been taken by the enemy,” he said. “It will be very interesting to see how people will react. Historically, when something like this happens, the fanatical people tend to bond together stronger.”
Jeffs assumed the mantle of prophet four years ago after the death of his 98-year-old father, Rulon.
The transition was controversial, causing a rift among the estimated 10,000 followers, and it was followed by a series of excommunications.
Within Colorado City and Hildale, church business has long been intertwined with social activities, housing and employment. But pressure from ex-members and the government have eroded some of that power.
Arizona took over the public schools amid allegations of financial mismanagement. Courts appointed a receiver to take over a trust that owned members’ homes and businesses. At least eight men were charged with sex offenses; one has been convicted.
Former congregants, including women who were placed in arranged marriages and “lost boys” who were banished, filed lawsuits.
Two years ago, Jeffs moved the operational base from Colorado City to Eldorado, Texas, where a ranch was transformed into a giant residential compound.
Debbie Palmer, a former member who still has family in the church, said Jeffs prepared a contingency plan for his arrest and will maintain control from behind bars. Although it is possible that a usurper could arise, Palmer said, she is more concerned about an apocalyptic reaction from the most ardent devotees in Texas.
“I’m really worried,” she said, adding that Jeffs recently advised followers they “might have to shed their blood in his defense.”
On Tuesday, authorities in Arizona, Utah and Texas said there were no signs of violence or panic. Trish Carter, public information officer for the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office, said extra deputies are placed in the Colorado City area. “They have been told to monitor the community, and so far, nothing unusual has occurred,” she said.
In Colorado City, all was calm Tuesday afternoon. Kids rode mo-peds through arroyos. Women in frontier dresses tended gardens.
The municipal center, Fire Department and state Motor Vehicle Division office closed early for reasons unknown.
At Mohave Community College’s north campus in Colorado City, where about half of the 550 students are from polygamous families, Dean of Students Susan Hammon said classes were conducted as usual.
Jeffs became a fugitive 14 months ago after being charged in Arizona with two felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor after he arranged the marriage of a 16-year-old girl to a married man, officials say.
An indictment from Washington County, Utah, accuses him of rape as an accomplice in another marriage. He has not been charged with directly engaging in sex with children.
Patricia Sheffield, director of Washington County’s Children’s Justice Center in St. George, Utah, said she hopes Jeffs’ prosecution will unravel the mysteries of the twin cities of Colorado City and Hildale.
Sheffield’s group has worked with the “lost boys,” young men run out of the community by older males. She hopes the arrest will give others the courage to seek help.
“I wish we could get them to come forward and trust that we have their best interests at heart,” she said, “that there are adults outside of the community that want to help when abuse is occurring, like forced marriage and physical and sexual abuse.”
Sheffield said some of these children could be hesitant because they were raised to recognize heads of household, church and community as the power holders.
“I’m hoping that people will recognize that (authorities were) not after all of the people who lived there, only those who were breaking the law, committing crimes against children and hiding behind religion,” she said. “It wasn’t just a witch hunt.”
Reporters William Hermann, Lindsey Collom and Mark Shaffer contributed to this article.
1976-98: Principal of Alta Academy, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints school near Salt Lake City.
1998: Moves to Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., area after school closes. Assumes key church role as the health of his father, sect leader Rulon Jeffs, declines.
2002: Takes over leadership of the polygamist sect after father dies.
2003: Arizona and Utah vow to end the practice of taking child brides after a former Colorado City police officer is convicted of felony bigamy and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor after taking an underage bride.
2004: Brent Jeffs files lawsuit that accuses his uncle, Warren Jeffs, of sodomy and child molestation.
June 2005: Warren Jeffs indicted on sexual-misconduct charges tied to arranging marriages of underage girls to much older men in the polygamist communities.
June 2005: Jeffs charged by U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
June 2005: Jeffs and other polygamist leaders in Colorado City and Hildale removed by Utah court as trustees of United Effort Plan, a communal trust that owns much of the communities’ properties.
July 2005: Arizona Attorney General’s Office offers $10,000 for information leading to Jeffs’ capture, the first time it offers a reward for a fugitive.
June to October 2005: Sightings of Jeffs reported in British Columbia; Salt Lake City; Lehi, Utah; and Leesburg, Fla.
October 2005: Jeffs’ brother, Seth Jeffs, arrested near Pueblo, Colo., on charges of prostitution and harboring a fugitive. He was carrying $142,000 in cash and letters addressed to Warren. (He pleaded guilty to the latter charge in May; status of the prostitution count unavailable.)
April: Warren Jeffs indicted in Utah on rape as an accomplice in the marriage of a teenage girl to an older man and an unlawful-flight charge.
May: FBI places Jeffs on its “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list.
Monday: Jeffs captured during traffic stop near Las Vegas.