Continued speculation on polygamist’s health raises new questions about FLDS
A 5th District judge issued a sealed order Tuesday in polygamist Warren S. Jeffs case, eight days after the sect leader’s frail, emaciated and detached appearance shocked observers and raised questions about his physical and mental health.
Court records do not specify who petitioned the court earlier Tuesday. Medical and psychological filings are among records that court rules allow to be sealed; so are challenges seeking to block use of evidence.
Last week, Jeffs, 51, displayed none of the bravado that marked his previous court appearances. As the hearing ended, Jeffs stood with a handwritten note and asked “to take care of one matter,” but the judge stopped his attempt to speak.
The message Jeffs penned has not been publicly disclosed, though it is the subject of much speculation. Law enforcement sources say it referred to his leadership of the FLDS church.
Jeffs’ appearance and behavior raise questions about what may lie ahead both for his trial and for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which Jeffs has led since September 2002.
His inability or unwillingness to continue leading the church – either because of his imprisonment, health issues or some other reason – would place the faith in an “unprecedented” position, according to one expert.
“I’ve never heard of any leader of a major fundamentalist community abdicating,” said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and author of numerous scholarly papers about the FLDS church.
Jeffs looked skeletal and feeble in court, giving proof to widespread rumors that his health is fragile and perhaps failing. He dozed off – so deeply he drooled once – and displayed little interest in the arguments. At a December hearing, Jeffs had chatted amiably with his trio of attorneys and exchanged long glances with a contingent of FLDS faithful.
Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith said that while in jail, Jeffs has gone without eating at times but, as of March 19, was eating and his health was “fine.”
But many – critics and supporters alike – reacted with shock at seeing him.
One exiled FLDS member contacted The Salt Lake Tribune last Friday to ask about accuracy of media reports describing Jeffs’ appearance.
“I look at him as a man who is being treated very poorly by people who should be treating him with a great deal of respect and by people whose goal is to destroy him,” said the man, who asked to not be identified.
He was asked to leave the FLDS community and “repent from a distance” a few years ago but said he still believes in “Uncle Warren.”
Walter Bugden, one of Jeffs’ three attorneys, wouldn’t comment after last week’s hearing on the note or his client’s health, except to say that Jeffs is “very frail.”
Jeffs is charged with being an accomplice to rape for conducting an arranged marriage in 2001 between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
The 51-year-old sect leader has spent nearly seven months at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane, where he is kept in administrative segregation. He is allowed out of his cell for only limited periods to shower, exercise and make telephone calls.
He was taken to Dixie Regional Medical Center on Jan. 28 after experiencing what has been described to The Tribune as a panic attack. Family and other former FLDS members have said that Jeffs, who was born prematurely, has always been sickly, which led him to adhere to a strict diet.
One man rule
Jeffs’ claim to the leadership of the church in 2002, following his father’s death, was disputed by some in the community who said he’d never been ordained to the post.
The FLDS church had moved from a council to a “one-man rule” under a previous leader, Leroy S. Johnson; faithful believe that only that man, the church president, holds ecclesiastical keys and authority to receive revelation and conduct marriages and other ordinances.
Some felt Louis Barlow or Winston Blackmore of Canada were more legitimate successors than Jeffs.
But Jeffs pressed on. He appointed Wendell Nielsen as his first counselor, and, in August 2003, named 12 men as “high priests” in the church.
Most observers believe Nielsen, whose former business, Western Precision, was a financial mainstay of the community, is most likely to be Jeffs’ eventual successor. Nielsen’s whereabouts aren’t known.
“Quite frankly, there are many people among those followers of Warren that could do a far better job than he ever did,” said Blackmore, who regularly holds church services with about 200 people who defected or were kicked out of the church after Jeffs took over.
“I hope one of them rises to the occasion and establishes some stability among them, thus avoiding any further crisis of their faith,” Blackmore said.
Friendly towns: Some say a new friendliness in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., homebase of the FLDS, is a signal that a shift in leadership may have already occurred.
“There is a man who is pretty high up in the priesthood work here, we’ll call it. We hit him pretty dang hard, kind of ruined his career,” said Isaac Wyler, an ex-FLDS member who still lives in the community. “He passed me and waved.
“A few days before that, one of Warren’s bouncers, he looked at me, recognized me and waved,” he added.
Ann Wright, who lives in the nearby polygamous community of Centennial Park, said the FLDS towns seem “less stressed.”
“There are definitely a lot more people out and about, but it is hard to tell where it is coming from,” she said. “I think people are just feeling not so under siege. The whole community just feels like it can take a deep breath. I don’t know where that is coming from, whether that is how they feel about Warren or there seems to be less media and law enforcement.”
The next hearing in Warren S. Jeffs’ case is set for April 23. It will focus on evidence, including religious documents and other items found with him when he was arrested Aug. 28 during a traffic stop on I-15 north of Las Vegas. The defense team also has asked that prosecutors disclose evidence of any other crimes, wrongs or acts they plan to use against Jeffs in his upcoming trial.
Nate Carlisle contributed to this report.