The leader of a polygamist sect said Thursday he will not fight extradition to Utah on charges that he arranged marriages between underage girls and older men.
Warren Jeffs made his first court appearance since being arrested Monday after more than a year on the run. He looked nothing like a charismatic religious leader with an estimated 10,000 followers — he spoke almost inaudibly and his blue prison jumpsuit hung off his bony frame.
Jeffs, who was not represented by a lawyer, nodded when Las Vegas Justice of the Peace James Bixler asked if he would be extradited to Utah. He is charged there with two counts of rape by accomplice and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Two prosecutors from the Washington County attorney’s office in Utah were in the courtroom. Prosecutor Jerry Jaeger and Ryan Shawm said they planned to take Jeffs immediately, though the return could take several days.
The 50-year-old leader of the breakaway Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was arrested late Monday after a traffic stop outside Las Vegas.
Utah gets first crack
In Jeffs’ first appearance since his arrest, Bixler informed him of the charges. Arizona also has a warrant, but Utah will prosecute him first because it has a stronger case and more serious charges of rape by accomplice.
Prosecutors hope the arrest will break Jeffs’ hold on his followers and empower them to speak out about their lives within the sect and the arranged marriages of young girls there, some just 13 years old.
In past attempts to prosecute polygamists within the sect, victims have faced powerful pressure to stay quiet from family members and their insular communities along the Utah-Arizona line that consider Jeffs a prophet of God.
Just this week, a sexual assault trial of another sect member was put on hold after the alleged victim, a woman married off at 16, refused to testify.
“They pretty much have to renounce their entire heritage to go against the prophet,” said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. “That has got to be hard to do.”
Jeffs, who has refused jailhouse interviews this week, spent two years on the run and three months on the FBI’s Most Wanted List before his chance arrest in Las Vegas.
Reluctant bride's storyOne accuser said Jeffs performed a wedding over her repeated objections. After the girl continued to resist the man for a month, Jeffs ordered her to “give your mind, body and soul to your husband like you’re supposed to,” according to an affidavit obtained by The Associated Press.
“Go back and do what he tells you to do,” Jeffs said, according to the affidavit.
Jeffs’ sect, with congregants mostly in Hildale, Utah, and neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., split from the mainstream Mormon Church when the Mormons disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago. Jeffs took over the renegade sect in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father. He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children.
Flora Jessop, a former sect member who remains skeptical about whether Jeffs’ arrest will change the sect’s practices, said the key to building the case against Jeffs is a willingness of victims to talk.
‘Window of opportunity’“It’s a matter of using the window of opportunity that we have to get resources, education, help to the women and children who do want out, releasing that stranglehold of fear that he has on their minds, enough to get them help,” Jessop said.
While Jeffs’ arrest won’t make that reluctance disappear, prosecutors say it might help encourage victims to come forward, because they can see that the church leader is being held accountable.
“It will take great courage for them to testify in these proceedings,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. “We congratulate them because the message is, nobody is above the law.”