Polygamist leader quietly awaits trial in jail

Associated Press/February 14, 2009

Kingman, Arizona - He's the most notorious inmate at the Mohave County Jail, segregated for the crimes he's accused of and the name he's built for himself. Most of his fellow prisoners know him from the news, though they've never seen him in person.

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was brought to the Arizona jail nearly a year ago, far from his followers, to await trial on four counts of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor. The charges stem from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives.

But Jeffs' journey through the justice system won't end here. As he awaits his day in an Arizona court, Texas is building an unrelated case against him, and he's already been convicted in Utah.

For now, though, his life is a 7-by-12-foot cell where he spends his days poring over religious material and talking with attorneys over what lies ahead.

Once a fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted List, he's now described as respectful and polite and his habits are held up as a model for fellow inmates. In past jail stints, Jeffs refused to eat, banged his head against walls, attempted suicide and was restrained to his bed for spending too much time on his knees praying.

"I'm having better luck with him," said Jeff Brown, deputy director at the Mohave County Jail.

Jeffs lived a lavish life as the charismatic leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect based in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, that believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.

The Mormon church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Jeffs was revered as a prophet among his 10,000-plus followers, but his lifestyle started to unravel in June 2005 when he was charged in Arizona and went on the run.

In April 2006, officials in Utah accused him of rape by accomplice in the arrangement of a 2001 marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

After more than a year as a fugitive, authorities caught up with him in Las Vegas; he was traveling in a red Cadillac Escalade with $57,000, cell phones, prepaid credit cards, wigs and sunglasses.

A jury convicted Jeffs on two felony counts of rape by accomplice in Utah in 2007. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison, though the convictions are being appealed.

Jeffs' troubles extended into Texas when he was indicted on charges of sexual assault of a child and bigamy, months after authorities raided the FLDS' Yearning for Zion ranch at Eldorado in April.

Defense attorney Mike Piccarreta said the Arizona case against Jeffs was "religious persecution."

"It's sort of a concerted effort to try and persecute an unpopular religious group," he said. "I think there's a belief that if you can prosecute its leadership, that will decimate the religion."

County Attorney Matt Smith, the prosecutor, said Jeffs broke the law and that his case had nothing to do with religion.

"To call it religious persecution is ridiculous," Smith said.

While the cases play out, Jeffs maintains his quiet existence, although the number of people wanting to see him in jail during twice-weekly visits has created a circus at times. Jail staff has had to coordinate the visits, each limited to two people, with the FLDS church.

Jeffs' most frequent visitor has been Naomie Jessop, who was traveling with Jeffs when he was arrested in Las Vegas. On a recent afternoon, she and another follower huddled in a booth, separated from Jeffs by a window.

Piccarreta said neither Jessop nor Jeff are interested in speaking to the media.

It's not often the Mohave County Jail houses an inmate of Jeffs' notoriety, said Brown, the deputy jail director. When Jeffs is moved from his cell, all movement on the jail floor is halted. When he's due in court, Jeffs hops in a van with a security detail instead of walking across the street as other inmates do.

"We just have to be safe, because there are people who don't like him and would harm if they could," Brown said.

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