Within hours of the arrest of Warren S. Jeffs last August, authorities in Utah and Arizona predicted loyalty to the polygamous sect leader would crumble.
The arrest would crack Jeffs’ mystique, said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. It would end “the tyrannical rule of a small group of people” over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.
A year later, as his criminal trial nears, devotion to Jeffs seems as strong as ever.
And that has left officials emphasizing other evidence of progress in their effort to bring the “rule of law” to the polygamous enclave on the Arizona strip.
One “huge” development: Underage marriages appear to have stopped, perhaps even before Jeffs’ arrest.
“I have had no allegations of underage marriages in any community in the last several years,” Shurtleff said. “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but I think we would have heard [if it did]. . . . I hope that is the case, and that is big.”
It was underage marriages that set the stage in 2002 for a showdown between the FLDS and government officials and led to initial charges against Jeffs in Arizona.
Since then, Shurtleff and Goddard say there have been “spectacular” accomplishments. They cite the takeover of the sect’s communal property trust, seizure of a public school district and efforts to decertify police officers deemed beholden to Jeffs.
All that seems to have had little impact on Jeffs’ followers.
There has been no great exodus from the FLDS towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. – of those defecting from the sect or of faithful moving elsewhere.
Authorities had hoped more witnesses would surface with information about “other potential crimes,” as Shurtleff put it last summer. That hasn’t happened, either.
Officials have filed just one case involving a new victim. Filed in Arizona, it involves an underage marriage Jeffs allegedly conducted five years ago. (A second newly filed case in Arizona involves Jane Doe.) But three other Arizona cases based on underage marriages Jeffs allegedly conducted collapsed because of witness or jurisdiction problems.
State officials now say it may take more time.
“There is nothing magic about one year passing,” Shurtleff said. “He still hasn’t been to trial yet, he is still communicating with his people. I don’t expect a lot of change yet.”
Depending on how the trial turns out, “it might encourage others to come out,” he said.
Jeffs’ trial on two counts of being an accomplice to rape will get under way Friday when 300 potential jurors are brought to the Dixie Center in St. George and asked to fill out a 75-item questionnaire.
The process will continue Sept. 10 at the 5th District courthouse. Potential jurors who pass the initial cut will be brought one at a time into Judge James L. Shumate’s chambers and questioned about the case. If a jury is seated, the trial may begin as early as Sept. 12.
The charges involve a marriage Jeffs conducted in 2001 that involved a teenager, known as Jane Doe, who alleges she objected to the union and to having marital relations with her husband. Jeffs, according to Jane Doe, said her heavenly salvation depended on her doing as told.
Jeffs has spent the months since his arrest in a cell at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane. His attorneys opted not to seek his release on bail, in part because he was judged a flight risk.
He had spent nearly 15 months as a fugitive before his arrest, earning a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list.
At Purgatory, Jeffs is kept in solitary confinement, allowed out only to shower, exercise and make telephone calls.
He has spent much of his time on his knees, praying – so much time that he developed ulcerated sores on them.
Periodic fasts have caused Jeffs to look emaciated at some court hearings. In March, he was visibly disoriented – prompting Shumate to order a psychological evaluation.
The judge later declared Jeffs fit for trial. Since then, Jeffs appears to have put on weight and to be more alert and engaged with his defense team.
Jeffs is visited weekly at the jail by family and followers.
A dozen or more FLDS members, including on occasion his mother, Merilyn, attend his court hearings, exchanging glances, nods and smiles with him.
They and the rest of the community have offered no public comments about the proceedings, though Shurtleff said an FLDS leader has expressed interest in meeting with him, “whereas before it was absolutely no.”
Goddard acknowledges that he, like Shurtleff, anticipated Jeffs’ arrest would cause a greater fissure in the community.
“Certainly that’s not the case, I’m glad to say it,” Goddard said. “People are still living there, they have support, they’re able to feed their families. There is not panic or disruption at the family level.
“But it’s got to be terribly disrupting personally, psychologically, for people to see the kind of challenges to the traditions and the activities and the whole power structure that have been taking place over the past several years,” he said.
Goddard said he thinks the FLDS need help crossing the “very big gap” created by changes occurring in their community.
“Beyond the government efforts, there need to be some humanitarian person to person, family to family, business to business efforts in Colorado City and Hildale to help people make this transition,” Goddard said.