ST. GEORGE, Utah – Prosecuting Warren Jeffs on charges of rape as an accomplice could enhance, not diminish, the way the polygamist sect leader is revered by faithful followers, historians say.
The case against Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was scheduled to resume with a hearing Thursday to determine whether the case should go to trial.
The outcome isn’t likely to lessen the 50-year-old Jeffs’ popularity. The FLDS sect traces its roots to early Mormon theology, which promoted plural marriage. The modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavows polygamy and renounced the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood.
The FLDS, however, consider themselves “fundamentalist Mormons” who continue to believe polygamy will bring glory in heaven. They also consider Jeffs a prophet of God with dominion over their salvation.
“Prosecution will actually strengthen his position as a leader,” said Martha Bradley, a University of Utah professor and author of a history of government raids on the FLDS community. “You just can’t underestimate the power of becoming a martyr.”
Authorities rounded up and imprisoned FLDS church members in the 1940s and 1950s, but the prosecuted returned home to the community on the Arizona-Utah state line as heroes, Bradley said. The persecution also strengthened the community’s resolve to continue its religious practices.
Bradley predicts that pattern will repeat, even if Jeffs is tried and convicted of the two first-degree felony counts that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.
Washington County prosecutors contend Jeffs forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-cousin in 2001. The union resulted in sexual relations that also occurred without her consent, the now-20-year-old woman said in a court hearing last month.
Jeffs is also charged with multiple felonies in Mohave County, Ariz., but won’t face those charges until after the Utah case is complete.
At the helm of the FLDS church since 2002, Jeffs disappeared from public life in 2004 after lawsuits filed against him and his church alleged abuses of some members. Criminal charges in Arizona and Utah followed in 2005 and 2006. Earlier this year, Jeffs was named to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
Jeffs was arrested Aug. 28 in a traffic stop on Interstate 15 just north of Las Vegas, Nev. He is being held without bail in the county’s Purgatory Correctional Facility.