Jail takes its toll on polygamist leader's authority

Fort Worth Star-Telegram/May 4, 2008

As his polygamist followers in Texas undergo one of the most intensive child abuse investigations in the nation's history, sect prophet Warren Jeffs sits in a small jail cell in Arizona, emaciated and under a suicide watch, as he awaits trial on charges of criminal incest and sexual assault in a desert town that was once the home of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Jeffs, 52, is alone in his cell 23 hours each day, allowed out only to shower and use the telephone. He is given two 30-minute visitation periods a week. Those who come to see him are usually his wives from Texas who, one sect expert said, have a "vested interest in his retaining his leadership."

But Jeffs' rule over the estimated 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is believed to be eroding, observers and former sect members say.

"From a theological standpoint, Warren Jeffs would still be considered the prophet, even though he is behind bars," said Shannon Price, director of the Salt Lake City-based Diversity Foundation, which helps victims of polygamy.

But Jeffs' continued control relies on the information he gets from the outside world, said Price, who grew up in a monogamous family but has relatives who are polygamists, including three uncles who were "prophets" of the sect. Based on his visitors' log at the Mohave County Jail, she said, Jeffs is getting his news from women who have little sway in the male-only hierarchy of the FLDS and its sprawling compound near Eldorado, in West Texas.

'He was a creep'

Carolyn Jessop, who was married to a top lieutenant of Jeffs' before she and her eight children escaped in April 2003, said Jeffs is losing control over the sect, mainly because he is cut off from his handpicked followers, considered his favorites, at the 1,691-acre YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch, 45 miles south of San Angelo.

"He's not doing well in prison at all. If he continues to starve himself he'll eventually kill himself," said Jessop, author of the book Escape, which chronicles her life in and out of polygamy.

As a "plural wife" to Merril Jessop, a top confidant of Jeffs who leads the compound in Eldorado, Carolyn Jessop was around Jeffs more than she wanted.

"I have no respect for the man. I thought he was a creep the first day that I met him. There was something wrong with the man. If you look at the things he's done to people, they're criminal," she said.

Jeffs inherited the leadership of the breakaway Mormon sect from his father, Rulon Jeffs, who at the time of his death in 2002 had 19 or 20 wives and about 60 children. The new leader reportedly told his flock, "Hands off my father's wives." He married most of them.

The only person in the FLDS with the authority to do so, Jeffs "assigned" girls and women to marry older men in the sect, and he continued to take more wives. It is unknown how many he had before his arrest.

"I don't think even Warren Jeffs knows how many wives he has," Price said.

He was one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives when he was arrested in 2006 for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin in Utah. When police caught up with him during a traffic stop in Nevada, he was traveling in a red Cadillac Escalade that was packed with luggage, 15 cellphones, laptop computers, three wigs and $54,000 in cash. A large duffel bag was stuffed with letters containing more money from loyal sect members who supported him while he was on the run, authorities said after the arrest.

Jeffs was subsequently convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to child rape and was sentenced to between 10 years and life in prison.

He has been in the county jail in Kingman, Ariz., since February, charged with sexual conduct with a child and incest after accusations of arranging the marriage of another young girl to a blood relative.

The incest defense

Jeffs' legal defense has at times raised eyebrows in the courtroom, including when his lawyers argued that incest could not be prosecuted as a crime because the case involved a child. "In addition, the participants to these alleged acts are not full first cousins ... but rather first cousins of the half-blood, and therefore do not fall within the reach of the incest statute," defense lawyers argued in court records.

Baffled prosecutors called the argument "absurd" and said it was crazy "to punish incest involving adults more harshly than incest involving minors," according to the records.

Jeffs' lead defense lawyer, Michael Piccarreta of Tucson, Ariz., was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Since being jailed in Arizona, Jeffs has been "very quiet, keeping to himself," Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said.

Jeffs is under a suicide watch because of his reported attempts to commit suicide in Utah jails, and he is kept alone in a cell with no television or any other electrical device, Sheahan said.

A jail log shows that on April 2, a day before the Texas compound was raided by state police, Jeffs received two visitors -- believed to be among his many wives from the YFZ Ranch -- who communicated with him by phone through thick bulletproof glass.

Now, before Jeffs is allowed into a court hearing on his pending case, the courtroom is swept for explosives and the number of guards is increased. "His followers can be very fanatical," Sheahan said.

Jeffs' presence in Kingman has drawn a crowd of reporters, but not nearly as many as 13 years ago.

Timothy James McVeigh lived in the town, working part time at a hardware store, shortly before he and accomplice Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

After the bombing, 250 federal agents and an equal number of reporters swarmed Kingman, said Dave Hawkins, a 24-year veteran reporter for the town's KGMN-FM radio station.

When Jeffs was moved to Kingman early this year, two months before his favorite followers were besieged by law officers in Texas, only about a dozen reporters attended his first court appearance, Hawkins said.

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