Sect mum about fugitive sought by FBI

Dallas/Ft. Worth Star-Telegram/May 17, 2006
By Jennifer Dobner

Hildale, Utah -- Prophet. Religious zealot. Dangerous extremist.

These are all words used to describe Warren Jeffs, the 50-year-old leader of a polygamous sect, since he was put on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list recently alongside fugitives including Osama bin Laden.

Jeffs, head of a renegade group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is accused of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men. He is charged with child sexual abuse in Arizona and being an accomplice to statutory rape in Utah.

Jeffs exercises extraordinary control over 10,000 or so followers who live mostly in the side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Church dissidents say that during Jeffs' four-year rule, the number of underage marriages -- some to girls as young as 13 -- escalated into the hundreds. Families have been fractured in the process.

According to those expelled from the community, young men are sent away so as not to compete for brides; older men are cast out after Jeffs accuses them of disobedience, and their wives and children are reassigned by Jeffs to new husbands and fathers.

"He's committed some horrific crimes against people, and I think he views himself as untouchable," said Carolyn Jessop, who in 2003 fled an 18-year marriage to a man 32 years her senior.

Insiders are fiercely loyal and will not answer questions from reporters. Jeffs has not been seen publicly in nearly two years. An interview request faxed by The Associated Press to a church-owned ranch in Eldorado, Texas, where some say he has moved the church headquarters, elicited no response.

"I think he's a religious pervert, an extreme zealot or a religious extremist and a control freak," said Richard Holm, who said that he was thrown out in 2003 and that his three wives and 17 children were taken without warning.

"His leadership has totally disrupted whatever was good about the church."

The sect adheres to early teachings of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, who advocated plural marriage. The mainline Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890 and disavows any connection to such fundamentalist sects.

Polygamists have lived on the Utah-Arizona line since the early 20th century. A raid on the community -- then known as Short Creek -- by Arizona and federal authorities in 1953 was a debacle, and since then, law enforcement authorities turned a blind eye to the group.

Jeffs assumed leadership in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father, Rulon Jeffs, who had 65 children by several women. Jeffs took nearly all of his father's widows as his own wives. He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children.

The sect has long practiced arranged marriages, but dissidents say young girls were rarely married off until Jeffs came to power.

He has ordered followers to teach their children at home; banned athletics, television and all books except Scripture; and enforced a long-standing dress code that requires women to wear long pioneer-style dresses and men to button their shirt collars.

The community's youngsters rarely get an education beyond the eighth grade. Instead they go to work, the boys usually in construction, the girls at home, or in family-run businesses, such as a dairy.

Since the 1940s, a church trust has held all the land and buildings in the two communities. However, last June, after Jeffs failed to answer lawsuits filed against him, the state of Utah took control of the trust.

Authorities believe he may be moving back and forth across the U.S. border to enclaves in Canada and Mexico. The FBI considers Jeffs armed and dangerous.

"I'd say he has a lot of financial resources available to him, he's got a wide network of support, and he generally surrounds himself with people who distrust the government," Salt Lake City FBI spokesman Patrick Kiernan said.

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