Fugitive leader Warren Jeffs is arrested, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his sect
During his 14 months in hiding from the FBI, Warren Jeffs managed to continue controlling and directing his followers — members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who number an estimated 10,000, most based in the border towns of Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ. Although wanted for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution charges of forcing underage marriages, he conducted even more underage unions, exiled men from their homes and families who were considered “unworthy,” and ordered followers not to pay their taxes. Some fear that his arrest could now create a power vacuum within his sect and attract other Jeffs-minded leaders interested in doing it their own way. There is also the possibility of an exiled member returning to establish new leadership.
Carolyn Jessop, a former member of Jeffs’ sect, points out that there are two high-powered, charismatic men who could possibly move back to Colorado City and take Jeffs place: one is her ex-husband, Merrell Jessop, who oversees the sect’s compound in Texas; the other is Wendell Neilson, who likely oversees another compound. But she considers this unlikely. “I don’t think Warren would give away any of his power — he’s too controlling and hungry for it and these men would be threats to his leadership. Plus they would never go against Jeffs’ wishes.” Jessop predicts that Jeffs will rely on his full-brother, Lyle Jeffs, to act as his puppet and carry out his “revelations” from prison. “He has had it too good for too long to let this thing go — he would rather watch the whole church dissipate than let someone else take over power,” says Jessop.
Rod Parker, an attorney who has represented the sect’s members including Jeffs, believes that Jeffs will maintain his leadership status. “The whole premise of their beliefs is that Jeffs has been chosen by God to be their leader and the fact that he is in custody doesn’t change that — he is still going to be viewed as their prophet.” Although, logistically carrying out his role may mean relying on a hierarchy of power. “Being a fugitive never stopped him from running the church, so why would it now?” asks Parker.
Historically, when Mormon leaders have been jailed or hidden as has happened twice in the past, it has unified members and enhanced the stature of the leaders. The view is that a leader who remains firm and resolute in his beliefs despite serious consequences to himself is a leader to look up to.
But Jeff’s trial could also provide positive change for many of his followers. “The authorities have been extremely secretive about what they have on [Jeffs],” says Jessop, “and when it goes to court, a lot of crimes and illegal activity are going to go public and make people realize that these fundamentalist communities need to be handled.” (Jeffs’ lawyer could not be reached for comment.)
The sect follows the original fundamental teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, which include the practice of polygamy. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left polygamy behind in 1890 and now excommunicates members who practice it.
While on the run from the law for more than a year, Jeffs told his followers that authorities would never capture him, because God was protecting him. Members of the church believed him; after all, he was their prophet — the “speaker of God’s will.” But on Monday night, Jeffs’ faith bumped into the law, when a Las Vegas trooper pulled over a burgundy Escalade on a routine traffic stop. Sitting in the back was Jeffs, who has been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List since May with a $100,000 reward for any tips leading to his capture. One of his estimated 40 wives, Naomi Jeffs, and his brother Isaac Steed Jeffs were with him as well as a number of on-the-run travel essentials, including: several wigs, $67,500 in cash, 14 cell phones, a radar detector, two GPS systems, seven sets of keys, a photograph of Jeffs and his father, and a Bible and a Book of Mormon.
In Utah, Jeffs faces two felony counts of rape as an accomplice, for allegedly arranging the marriage of a teenage girl to an older man. In Arizona he faces multiple counts of sexual conduct with a minor and multiple counts of conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. Jeffs is being held in federal custody in a Las Vegas county jail pending a court hearing on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. It is not yet clear whether Jeffs will face extradition to Arizona or Utah. “Everyone will get their turn with Jeffs,” said Tim Fuhrman, Special Agent in charge of the FBI field Office. Charges against Jeffs in Utah are most likely to carry the longest sentence.
Like most Westerns, a shoot out or some form of violence was expected in Jeffs’ capture. The FBI had warned that Jeffs typically travels with armed bodyguards and some of his followers had vowed to die or kill for him. Nobody wanted another Waco. Catching Jeffs on the road, where he would have little protection outside his bodyguards, was the most favored approach. Since he is the only one allowed to perform marriages and is responsible for assigning wives to husbands, traveling was likely. It is unknown where Jeffs spent his time while hiding out, but he has ties to Texas, Colorado, South Dakota, British Columbia and Quintana Roo, Mexico. “He never had to appear in public, he had people who did that for him,” points out Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
The peaceful conclusion to Jeffs’ capture has left Shurtleff hopeful. “This should send a message that nobody is above the law and hopefully it will encourage some [victims] to come forward.” Shurleff anticipates changes in the group’s community, especially in the twin cities of Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ, where the sect is based. “Their feelings about him, their fear of him, their loyalty to him — we’re hoping will start to crumble.”
“This is a very historical move on the FBI’s part,” says former polygamist Rowenna Erickson, who hails from the Kingston polygamy group, which is unrelated to Jeffs’ and has its own lawsuits related to abuse. “There are a lot of groups that need to be addressed and this will ripple out and have a negative impact on those polygamy groups.”
Born premature, Jeffs was favored by his father, former sect leader, Rulon Jeffs; with some 60 siblings, being singled out was a rare treat. “He was considered the golden boy and never had to work a day in his life,” says investigator Sam Brower who has been working on polygamy civil cases for the past three years. Jeffs was known to be the primary gatekeeper for access to the prophet, his father, when he was alive but ailing in health. “I’m convinced he’s also a sociopathic narcissist who is extremely cunning,” says Brower. It is estimated, that Jeffs now has 80 wives, some 250 children and millions of dollars at his disposal.
“Money, sex, and power is what fundamentalist polygamy is about and that is what Warren Jeffs represents,” says John Llewelln, who points out that Jeffs is the leader of the largest and most secretive of the fundamentalist polygamy groups. Llewelln has authored four books on polygamy and is a former polygamist himself; he also worked as Salt Lake County’s deputy sheriff, specializing in sex crimes investigations. “From the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist point of view, Jeffs is the quintessential Mormon polygamist because he does not hold himself accountable to any government or societal rules — only his religion. His followers view him as having done nothing wrong except to live his religion and do what a prophet does.”