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Jailed polygamist leader had tight grip on flock

In his two years as a fugitive, polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs never loosened his grip on his 10,000 congregants, and people close to the sect say his arrest this week won’t change that.
Warren Steed Jeffs is shown in this December 2005 photo supplied by a member of his church.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In his two years as a fugitive, polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs never loosened his grip on his 10,000 congregants, and people close to the sect say his arrest this week won’t change that.

“I think there’s a structure in place that if Warren got caught they’ll still carry out his word, and they’ll figure out how to keep communicating with him,” said Andrew Chatwin, a former church member who moved back to Hildale last year.

Jeffs, 50, was caught by chance when a Cadillac Escalade in which he was riding was pulled over by the Nevada Highway Patrol for having a temporary Colorado license tag that was hard to read, FBI and Nevada Highway Patrol officials said.

When Trooper Eddie Dutchover walked up to the vehicle, something seemed amiss. Jeffs said the group had stayed in Las Vegas for a night, but they had too much luggage, Dutchover told The Associated Press. Jeffs also offered a contact lens receipt from Florida with the name John Findley as identification, the trooper said.

“Something was obviously wrong,” Dutchover said. “I even told him, ’You’re making me nervous. Is everything OK?”’

“Once the FBI got there ... he gave his full name, Warren Jeffs, and kind of gave a sigh,” the trooper said.

No weapons were found in the vehicle, but authorities said they found three wigs, 15 cell phones, letters to “President Warren Jeffs,” $54,000 in cash and $10,000 in gift cards.

Jeffs’ brother, Isaac Jeffs, who was driving, and one of Jeffs’ many wives were with him but released and will not be charged, said FBI Agent Steven Martinez in Las Vegas.

'Tyrannical rule' over 10,000 followers
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told KTAR-AM of Phoenix that Warren Jeffs’ arrest marks “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.”

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with congregants mostly in Hildale and neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., split from the mainstream Mormon Church when the Mormons disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

Jeffs, who took over the renegade sect in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father, has been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since May, charged in Utah and Arizona with felony sex crimes that include alleged arranged marriages between underage girls and older men.

Federal and state law enforcement agencies will now determine whether he goes first to Utah or Arizona, said Steve Sorenson, a federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City. Utah’s charges are more serious.

The insular communities Jeffs leads are expressing quiet sadness as they learn of the arrest, said Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who has defended the FLDS church and some of its members in the past.

“I would say they were a little shocked,” Parker said. “Shocked to the point that they didn’t really even know how to respond.”

Polygamy has been practiced here for more than 100 years, and FLDS members have survived wave after wave of persecution, Parker said.

Jeff’s arrest, he said, “It’s just sort of reinforcing that this is their burden ... and I think it may make them stronger and more insular as a group.”

'They'll stay loyal'
In Hildale on Tuesday, women with plaited hair and long dresses hoed gardens under the late summer sun, a few kids rode bikes or played basketball at the local school and men in pickup trucks drove through town casting wary looks to outsiders.

“They’ll stay loyal,” Chatwin said. “Warren’s not dead yet.”

He said the arrest might provide a window of opportunity for some members who have silently questioned the state of the FLDS church. It also might shock fiercely loyal members who consider Jeffs an untouchable prophet of God.

“It will shake people’s testimony,” Chatwin said. “It will make some stronger and it will make some weaker.”

Jeffs’ capture is also unlikely to affect the work of Bruce Wisan, a Salt Lake City accountant appointed by a Utah judge last year to manage the church’s United Effort Plan Trust. The $100 million trust holds most of the property in Colorado City and Hildale and was placed under Wisan’s guardianship to prevent Jeffs and other church leaders from using its assets for personal gain.

In the past, the trust had been used to punish disobedient members by forcing them out of their homes.

“I don’t think it (Jeff’s arrest) will change much in town,” Wisan said. “Warren has controlled them from afar and I think he’ll still be able to control them from jail.”