The leader of a polygamist breakaway sect who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List has been arrested and faces sexual misconduct charges for allegedly arranging marriages between underage girls and older men, authorities said Tuesday.
Warren Steed Jeffs, 50, was taken into custody after he and two other people were pulled over late Monday by a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper on Interstate 15 just north of Las Vegas, FBI spokesman David Staretz said.
Jeffs leads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that broke away from the Mormon church a century ago. He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children.
He was wanted in Utah and Arizona on suspicion of sexual misconduct for allegedly arranging marriages between underage girls and older men.
He assumed leadership of the sect in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father, Rulon Jeffs, who had 65 children by several women. Jeffs took nearly all his father’s widows as his own wives.
Since May, Jeffs has been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, with a $100,000 reward offered for information leading to his capture.
Wife, brother also in car
The other two people in the vehicle were identified as one of Warren Jeffs’ wives, Naomi Jeffs, and a brother, Isaac Steed Jeffs, both 32, Staretz said. They were being interviewed by the FBI in Las Vegas but were not arrested.
Isaac Jeffs was driving a red Cadillac Escalade that was stopped for having no visible registration, said state Trooper Kevin Honea. An FBI agent was summoned to confirm Jeffs’ identity, Honea said.
Warren Jeffs was in federal custody in Las Vegas awaiting a court hearing on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, Staretz said.
FBI officials said at a press conference Tuesday that Jeffs was found with $54,000 in cash, numerous gift cards worth an additional $10,000, 15 cell phones, four portable radios, four laptop computers, a global positioining system device, a police scanner, several pairs of sunglasses and three wigs.
‘Beginning of the end’
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told KTAR-AM of Phoenix that Jeffs’ arrest is “the beginning of the end of ... the tyrannical rule of a small group of people over the practically 10,000 followers of the FLDS sect.” He predicted that it will inspire more people to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.
Most of the church’s members live in Hildale, Utah, and nearby Colorado City, Ariz.
Jeffs was indicted in June 2005 on an Arizona charge of arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a married man, and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. He is charged in Utah with two felony counts of rape as an accomplice, for allegedly arranging the marriage of a teenage girl to an older man in Nevada.
The FLDS Church split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the mainstream Mormon Church disavowed plural marriage more than 100 years ago.
Allegations from within church
Jeffs has been called a religious zealot and dangerous extremist by those familiar with his church.
During his four-year rule, the number of underage marriages — some involving girls as young as 13 — escalated into the hundreds, church dissidents said. They said that although the sect has long practiced the custom of arranged marriages, young girls were rarely married off until Warren Jeffs came to power.
People expelled from the community said young men were sent away to avoid competition for brides. Older men were cast out for alleged disobedience, and their wives and children were reassigned by Jeffs to new husbands and fathers, the former members said.
“If this will bring an end to that, that will be a good thing,” said Ward Jeffs, an older half brother of Warren. “We’re excited for the people down there, but we’re very concerned about who might step up and take the leadership role.”
It remained unclear Tuesday what would happen to the leadership of the church while Jeffs was incarcerated.
Federal and state law enforcement agencies will determine whether Jeffs should be extradited first to Utah or Arizona, said Steve Sorenson, a federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City. Utah’s charges are more serious, and the federal unlawful flight charge was for leaving Utah, which could influence the decision, Sorenson said.