Fundamentalist church leader Warren Jeffs, awaiting trial in Kingman for facilitating child marriages, has starved himself to a point where jailers are force feeding him, the Mohave County Sheriff's Office says.
In a letter last week to Superior Court Judge Steven Conn, the jail's medical director said Jeffs' physical condition was precarious due to his refusal to eat.
"He is weaker and more debilitated... . His vital signs are worse," wrote Dr. Kirsten Mortensen. "His death could be imminent without immediate medical intervention."
Trish Carter, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said Jeffs began eating voluntarily over the weekend, but had to be given meals via a throat tube again Tuesday.
Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is awaiting trial on charges that he served as an accomplice to rape by arranging marriages of underage girls to men in the congregation.
Jeffs, 53, was convicted last year in Utah of rape as an accomplice for presiding over the union of a child and an adult church member. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which must be served after the Arizona case is resolved.
Defense attorney Michael Piccarreta said Tuesday that Jeffs is not fasting in protest, but eschews food while in religious meditations. Piccarreta said leaders of other faiths also have denied themselves meals while incarcerated.
"Mr. Jeffs, when he goes into deep prayer, does not eat or drink," Piccarreta said. "Occasionally, that has some medical repercussions. The jail needed to deal with a deteriorating medical condition, and they dealt with it."
Jeffs is a slight man, about 6-foot-3 and 155 pounds even when healthy. While behind bars in Utah, he raised concerns by declining meals, banging his head against walls and purportedly attempting suicide.
Since arriving at Mohave County Jail in February 2008, Jeffs has been in solitary confinement. Carter said he's been a good inmate except for incidents involving religious practices. She explained that Jeffs sometimes prays while kneeing to a point where his knees develop sores, and jailers enforce a policy against self-injury.
The FLDS church, based in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, is not affiliated with the mainstream Mormon religion, which renounced polygamy decades ago. The estimated 10,000 sect members believe that multiple marriages, or "celestial unions," directly bear on an individual's place in the hereafter.
Piccarreta would not comment on whether Jeffs is in contact with followers, but said the FLDS faithful are worried about their leader's condition.
"Members are concerned because they view Mr. Jeffs as being a victim of religious persecution on behalf of all of them," he said. "He is their prophet, their representative."