ST. GEORGE, Utah — Looking pale and gaunt in a green-striped jail uniform, polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs made an initial appearance via closed-circuit TV on Wednesday in 5th District Court, where he is accused of arranging a marriage between an underage girl and an older man.
Jeffs, 50, is charged with two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. He is being held in the Purgatory Correctional Facility in nearby Hurricane.
Judge James L. Shumate set a preliminary hearing date for Sept. 19, at which time the issue of bail will be addressed.
Last week, Shumate granted a request from Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap to temporarily revoke a $500,000 bond request for Jeffs. Belnap, who has called Jeffs a flight risk, wants bail revoked permanently. After Wednesday’s hearing, Belnap said that even if the judge set bail, federal prosecutors would put a hold on Jeffs to prevent his release.
Jeffs said little during the proceeding. He said his Nevada lawyer is helping him find counsel in Utah.
He said he had been advised by his lawyer, Richard Wright of Las Vegas, to request a continuance until he obtained a lawyer in Utah. Shumate said he wasn’t inclined to grant the continuance but would hold a status conference on Monday to see where Jeffs was in the search for legal representation.
Security was heavy at and around the county courthouse. Several SWAT teams could be seen in strategic positions. None of Jeffs’ supporters came to the hearing.
Since 2002, Jeffs has been the leader of the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with most of its members living in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Jeffs has led the sect in absentia since about 2004, when he disappeared after civil lawsuits alleged sexual and emotional abuses against a handful of young men, including a nephew, who claimed they were booted from their families by Jeffs.
Jeffs had been considered a fugitive from justice since 2005, when Arizona authorities charged him with two felonies, accused of arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man. He was named to the FBI’s most-wanted list in May.
Jeffs was arrested Aug. 28 in a traffic stop north of Las Vegas. He was transferred to Utah from Nevada on Tuesday.
In Utah, Washington County prosecutors contend Jeffs forced a teenage girl from his sect who was under 18 to marry and have sex with an older man, commanding her to “give herself mind, body and soul to your husband like you’re supposed to.”
Belnap has made a point of saying his office is not attacking Jeffs’ religion or the practice of polygamy.
“People have a right to whatever religious beliefs they may hold. However, religion is not an excuse for criminal conduct,” Belnap said at a news conference last week. “This case is about someone in a position of power and authority committing a crime against a vulnerable young girl.”
Polygamy has been practiced in Utah since the 1800s, when early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled the Salt Lake valley. The faith officially abandoned the practice in 1890, although it continued among members who splintered away from the main church, including those who eventually formed Jeffs’ FLDS church.
The Mormon church now denounces polygamy, excommunicates members found practicing it and denies the existence of “Mormon fundamentalists,” although many Utah-based polygamists refer to themselves that way.
There are an estimated 37,000 people practicing polygamy in Utah and other Western states, according to a survey by Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy advocacy and education group based in Salt Lake City. There is also a growing number of Christian polygamists throughout the U.S. who have no connection to early Mormonism, said Mark Henkel of TruthBearer.org, another pro-polygamy group.
Henkel said the allegations against Jeffs and his high-profile arrest are damaging to other polygamists because it blurs the line between adults trying to practice their beliefs and those committing crimes against children.
“(We) have openly opposed Jeffs’ alleged crimes and all the underage issues as much as any nonpolygamist,” said Henkel. “Now that he has been caught, Jeffs will rightly face trial in a real court of justice.”
Also Wednesday, Mohave County, Ariz., prosecutor Matt Smith began the third of eight trials against men from Jeffs’ sect, all of whom are charged with felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy for their “spiritual marriages” with underage girls.
The charges carry penalties of up to two years in prison and are the same one Smith filed against Jeffs in 2005. Jeffs is expected to be extradited to Arizona for trial after his Utah trial is complete.
So far, only one of the eight has been convicted. Kelley Fischer was found guilty by a jury in July and sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years’ probation. He has appealed. A second case against Randolph Barlow is on hold after the victim refused to testify during trial last week.