Warren Steed Jeffs had been on the run for more than a year. Rumors had him hiding out in Texas, Canada, Mexico and any number of safe houses across the West. No one but his closest followers knew for sure.
He made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. His picture was flashed on TV screens from coast to coast. A $100,000 reward was offered. Yet the leader of America’s largest polygamist sect still evaded capture.
But his life on the lam ended Monday on a dark stretch of highway north of Las Vegas, thanks to a routine traffic stop and a vigilant Nevada Highway Patrol trooper who thought things didn’t quite add up.
“It’s just overwhelming,” trooper Eddie Dutchover recalled Tuesday as the daylong media circus wound to an end.
Dutchover had been patrolling the stretch of northbound Interstate 15 near Apex the night before when he came up behind a new red Cadillac Escalade with no visible license plate. Dutchover pulled over the vehicle about 9 p.m. and almost immediately knew something was amiss.
Two men and a woman were inside the vehicle. They seemed nervous and told differing stories, he said.
The driver, Isaac Jeffs, gave the trooper a Utah license but would not make eye contact as he stood outside the vehicle, folding and unfolding his arms.
The man in the back seat, who was eating a salad, also appeared very nervous and avoided eye contact. Dutchover could see an artery in the passenger’s neck pulsing through his skin.
“You’re making me nervous. Is everything OK?” Dutchover asked the passenger, who had given the name of John Findley and used a contact lens receipt from Florida as identification.
Dutchover called for backup. The two troopers who responded were familiar with Warren Jeffs because about a month earlier they had pulled over some of his associates in the area.
The troopers searched the Escalade, uncovering large amounts of cash and more than a dozen cell phones. They found three wigs and about $10,000 in gift cards.
“Everything started to come together,” Dutchover said.
The troopers called an FBI agent, who asked Jeffs for his true identity. Jeffs looked resigned and told the agent his name was Warren. The woman was identified as Naomi Jeffs, one of Warren Jeffs’ wives.
“I said, ‘We’ve got him. We’ve finally got him,'” Dutchover recalled.
The trooper said he did not immediately recognize Jeffs when he pulled him over, but he recognized him about five minutes later. He said the magnitude of the arrest hit him in the patrol’s headquarters when he saw a poster of Jeffs next to Osama bin Laden’s.
Jeffs was booked at the Clark County Detention Center, where he was awaiting an extradition hearing. Because he faces charges in Utah and Arizona, prosecutors in those states will discuss their cases and decide where Jeffs should be sent first.
“I’d sure as hell would like to shake the hand of the officers who picked this son of a bitch up … because if it wouldn’t have been for good law enforcement work on the local level, I don’t think he ever would have been caught,” said Flora Jessop, a former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints member. She helps young women escape the isolated twin communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which straddle the Arizona-Utah border.
Isaac Jeffs emerged from the detention center about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday but refused to talk with reporters.
Warren Jeffs had been a wanted man since June 2005, when a grand jury in Mohave County, Ariz., indicted him on charges of sexual conduct on a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
The charges stemmed from allegations that Jeffs conducted an arranged marriage in 2002 between a 16-year-old girl, Candi Shapley, and an older, married man, Randy Barlow.
About a month later, the FBI filed a warrant against Jeffs, charging him with unlawfully fleeing to avoid prosecution. He did not make the agency’s Ten Most Wanted list until May, shortly after prosecutors in Washington County, Utah, charged Jeffs with rape as an accomplice.
The charges were hailed by Jessop and fellow activists, who had complained for years that law enforcement was turning a blind eye to abuses in the polygamist community. They wanted to stop the practice of forcing teenage girls, some as young as 14, into unions with older married men.
Besides underage marriages, former FLDS members described a cultlike atmosphere in which the prophet’s word is considered the word of God.
“They totally believe that Warren Jeffs is God’s mouthpiece, and if they don’t obey him entirely and explicitly, they’re damned to hell,” Jessop said.
As the prophet, Jeffs could expel members at a whim and without explanation. In January 2004, after less than two years as prophet, Jeffs excommunicated about 20 of the community’s most influential and longtime residents, including relatives of the towns’ founders. The men left without a fight, and Jeffs reassigned their wives and children to other men.
Even while Jeffs was on the lam, he continued to rule his flock, expelling members and reassigning their families, said Elaine Tyler of the HOPE Organization, a St. George, Utah, group that helps young women trying to leave the religion and young men who have been kicked out.
At times “two to three families a day were just moving from here to here to here,” she said.
Jeffs was able to take church members’ homes because nearly all land in Hildale and Colorado City is owned by the United Effort Plan, a 60-year-old trust that was controlled by Jeffs and a handful of church leaders.
The FLDS church was founded after the Mormon church ended the practice of polygamy in the late 1800s. FLDS members moved to a remote part of northern Arizona known as the Arizona Strip, which is cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon.
For much of their history, FLDS members practiced without outside interference. That changed in 1953, when then-Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle authorized a police raid on the community in a crackdown on polygamy. The raid was a public relations disaster, as newspapers ran photos of women and children sobbing as their husbands and fathers were hauled away in handcuffs.
After more than two years, the families were reunited and charges were dropped. Pyle was voted out of office, and authorities did not bother the FLDS for another half-century.
In recent years, prosecutors in Arizona have pursued charges against some FLDS members, including the indictment of eight men last year. But they also targeted Warren Jeffs, the prophet himself.
Authorities also moved to wrest control of the United Effort Plan trust from Jeffs and a handful of church leaders. Last year, a Utah judge removed them as trustees of the UEP, which was valued at about $150 million, and appointed accountant Bruce Wisan to oversee the trust. He has filed lawsuits against Jeffs and others, alleging they misused the trust’s assets.
Wisan contends the trustees sold a business called Western Precision to other church members for about $25,000, when the land and assets were valued at about $2 million. In recent weeks, Western Precision packed up and moved to the Las Vegas Valley, Wisan said.
“I’m not exactly sure why Warren’s moving out, but he is,” Wisan said. “It seems like he’s trying to disperse them to Mesquite and Las Vegas.”
The FLDS influence in Southern Nevada has grown in recent years. Several companies with FLDS ties have set up shop here, said people who track the church’s activities, and about 200 church members have moved to Mesquite.
Church members have run successful construction companies, including Las Vegas-based JNJ Engineering Construction and Paragon Construction, observers said.
JNJ has landed multiple contracts with local governments as the lowest qualified bidder. The company has earned $4.3 million from the Las Vegas Valley Water District for three projects, including creating trails at the Springs Preserve and replacing underground pipes. The company has garnered another $850,000 working on Las Vegas’ Pioneer Trail and restoring county wetlands.
“Las Vegas and Mesquite are booming, and they’re cashing in,” said private investigator Sam Brower, who has probed the church’s activities for several years.
Jessop said she thinks Jeffs was in the Las Vegas area to fatten his pocketbook.
“I think he was in Las Vegas collecting money from his money men,” she said. “This is where his money is coming from.”
Although Jeffs is in custody, some doubted he would lose much influence over his devoted followers.
“He’s contained, but his power isn’t anywhere close to being contained,” said Jay Beswick of Help the Child Brides. “He still has tremendous power. It just depends on how he uses it.”
Beswick said Jeffs might continue to rule, but other church leaders might rise and rally followers of their own and split the church membership.
University of Utah law professor Ed Firmage, author of the book “Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said Jeffs might lose his position, but the FLDS church will live on.
“He will be replaced,” he said. “People will be positioning themselves, but one thing you can count on is it will continue.”
But Rick A. Ross, an expert in destructive cults and controversial groups, disagreed. He said the FLDS faith is structured on a “one-man rule” concept, and Jeffs’ arrest will mark the end of the church.
“The body may continue to spasm, but without the head of the body, I don’t think there is much of a future,” said Ross, chief of the New Jersey-based nonprofit, Rick A. Ross Institute.
Pete Byers, chairman of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, worried that violence could accompany a power struggle within the church.
“Let’s see what happens,” said Byers, whose district includes Colorado City. “He’s got control of that whole community. He’s got that community in his grip. It’s very strange to me.”
The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office sent two deputies to Colorado City on Tuesday morning to watch for any signs of unrest, he said.
Jessop said church members will not do much for a couple of days. “They’re all hunkered in their homes right now, praying and fasting for our demise,” she said.
But violence might be coming, she said. Her inside sources have told her any potential witnesses against Jeffs are “walking dead men,” she said.
If the actions in an Arizona courtroom Tuesday are any indication, fear might be hindering the justice system.
Shapley, who is now 20, was supposed to testify Tuesday in Mohave County in the sexual assault trial of Barlow, who is accused of marrying Shapley when she was 16 in a ceremony allegedly conducted by Jeffs.
Shapley refused to testify and was held in contempt of court. Her actions surprised prosecutors because she had cooperated with authorities and testified before a grand jury.
County attorney Matt Smith said his case against Jeffs also hinges on Shapley’s testimony.
“I have to have her testimony to convict Warren Jeffs,” he said. “If she’s going to refuse to testify against Randy Barlow, why would anybody think I could get her to testify against Warren Jeffs?”
The Associated Press, Review-Journal staff writers Henry Brean, David Kihara and Adrienne Packer and freelance journalist Dave Hawkins contributed to this report.
We appreciate your support
One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.