PHOENIX (AP) — Prosecutors hope the arrest of a polygamist sect leader will break his hold on nearly 10,000 followers and empower them to speak out about their lives within the sect and the arranged marriages of young girls there, some just 13 years old.
In past attempts to prosecute polygamists within the sect, victims have faced powerful pressure to stay quiet from family members and their insular communities along the Utah-Arizona border that consider Warren Steed Jeffs a prophet of God.
Just this week, a sexual assault trial of another sect member was put on hold after the alleged victim, a woman married off at 16, refused to testify.
“They pretty much have to renounce their entire heritage to go against the prophet,” said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. “That has got to be hard to do.”
Jeffs, who has refused jailhouse interviews this week, is charged in both Utah and Arizona in connection to the arranged marriages of young girls. He spent two years on the run and three months on the FBI’s Most Wanted List before his chance arrest late Monday during a traffic stop in Las Vegas.
An extradition hearing was scheduled Thursday.
Arizona officials filed charges first against Jeffs, but Utah prosecutors plan to try him first because they believe they have a stronger case and more serious charges, including two counts of rape by accomplice, which accuse Jeffs of forcing a girl to marry an older man and submit to him sexually.
One accuser said Jeffs performed a wedding over her repeated objections. After the girl continued to resist the man for a month, Jeffs ordered her to “give your mind, body and soul to your husband like you’re supposed to,” according to an affidavit obtained by The Associated Press.
“Go back and do what he tells you to do,” Jeffs said, according to the affidavit.
Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with congregants mostly in Hildale, Utah, and neighboring Colorado City, split from the mainstream Mormon Church when the Mormons disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago. Jeffs took over the renegade sect in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father. He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children.
Flora Jessop, a former sect member who remains skeptical about whether Jeffs’ arrest will change the sect’s practices, said the key to building the case against Jeffs is a willingness of victims to talk.
“It’s a matter of using the window of opportunity that we have to get resources, education, help to the women and children who do want out, releasing that stranglehold of fear that he has on their minds, enough to get them help,” Jessop said.
While Jeffs’ arrest won’t make that reluctance disappear, prosecutors say it might help encourage victims to come forward, because they can see that the church leader is being held accountable.
“It will take great courage for them to testify in these proceedings,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. “We congratulate them because the message is nobody is above the law.”
One day after Jeffs was arrested, the sexual assault trial of sect member Randolph Barlow, 33, was put on hold in Kingman because the alleged victim refused to testify. The charges stem from Barlow’s spiritual marriage to the woman when she was 16.
“I have to have her testimony to convict Warren Jeffs,” Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith told KGMN radio in Kingman. “If she’s going to refuse to testify against Randy Barlow, why would anybody think I could get her to testify against Warren Jeffs?”
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