US polygamist sect facing the end as leader dies

The Times, London/September 17, 2002
By Chris Ayres

Los Angeles -- American's largest polygamist sect faces an uncertain future following the death of its leader, a child rape case and economic hardship.

Rulon T Jeffs (93), president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, died last week leaving 19 or 20 widows, about 60 children and hundreds of grandchildren. Five thousand followers attended his funeral and at least 33 of his sons were pallbearers.

The church, which has an estimated 10,000 members, will have to endure a lengthy succession battle. The two main candidates are Fred Jessop (92), a bishop in the church, and one of Mr Jeffs's sons, Warren (45). But the complex process of deciding on a new prophet, understood by few, could take months, even years.

The death of Mr Jeffs followed last month's conviction for child rape of Tom Green, a Mormon from the neighbouring state of Utah, who impregnated his 13-year-old "spiritual wife" in 1986. He was 37 at the time.

In Colorado City Mr Jeffs, the eighth "prophet" or leader, lived in an opulent home overlooking a valley containing the ever-expanding homes of about 4,000 other polygamist Mormons.

The recent child rape case drew attention to the church and growing criticism of polygamist lifestyles. The fundamentalists' dependence on public funding to support their families further eroded tolerance.

The area has failed to develop any economic infrastructure: the only commercial businesses are a small restaurant, a clothes shop and a petrol station. As a result, about 78pc of residents receive food stamps, compared with an 18pc average for Arizona state.

Supporters of the church argue that Colorado City is a role model for other American communitieswith "good old-fashioned" values. But critics say the church is a virtual dictatorship run by a small religious elite.

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