Polygamist's arrest brings unwanted attention to sect surviving in desert isolation

Saturday, September 2nd 2006, 1:08 pm
By: News On 6

HILDALE, Utah (AP) _ Driving toward this tiny town feels like nearing the edge of the earth, a place of jagged red-rock peaks surrounding dry valleys covered in pinyon trees.

It seems like the perfect place to hide.

For about a century, that's what members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have done here and in adjoining Colorado City, Ariz. _ living in isolation to practice their religion without interference.

However, the arrest of the sect's self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, has increased outside attention on the group and its practice of polygamy, which sometimes includes marrying teenage girls to men 20 years or more their senior.

Jeffs, 50, a fugitive wanted on criminal charges in both Utah and Arizona for more than a year, was arrested outside Las Vegas late Monday during a traffic stop. He waived extradition to Utah to face two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice, accused of arranging a marriage that led to the rape of an underage girl. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Polygamy was a tenet of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints _ the Mormons _ but the practice was abandoned in 1890 when Utah became a state. The church now excommunicates members found practicing polygamy, and the practice is banned in both the Arizona and Utah constitutions.

However, strident believers in ``the principle,'' as it is known, have remained steadfast.

Members of the FLDS practice polygamy because they believe that plural marriage secures their exaltation in heaven and that the number of wives a man marries corresponds to the level of glory he'll achieve.

Warren Jeffs assumed leadership of the church in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father, Rulon Jeffs, who had 65 children by several women. Warren Jeffs reportedly took nearly all his father's widows as his own wives. He is said to have about 40 wives and nearly 60 children.

There is no census data on polygamy, but a survey by a plural marriage advocacy group, Principle Voices of Polygamy, estimates about 37,000 people are living the lifestyle in the western United States and British Columbia. Based on the data, the largest known organized community is the FLDS, with about 10,000 members in Hildale and Colorado City.

In the FLDS faith, sisters may marry the same man, who may be a cousin, an uncle or even a stepfather. Church leaders decide who marries and when.

FLDS members are taught to believe that their leader is ``the prophet of God over us in our lives,'' said Carolyn Jessop, a former FLDS plural wife who was married for 17 years to a man 32 years older. She fled with her children in 2003.

The most obedient and faithful believe that God speaks to Jeffs, according to Jessop and other former members.

In a letter circulated through the sect last spring, Jeffs told followers he ``had walked with the savior and they wept together for the condition of the people,'' said Richard Holm, another former church member.

In 2003, Jeffs stripped Holm of his wives, 17 children and church membership, one of dozens of men cast out for unknown acts and deemed unfaithful or unworthy. Also cast out have been young men seen as competing with older men for marriages with young girls.

Critics say such excommunications show how Jeffs' need for control and obedience have moved the faith from what was once described as a community guided by love to one of secrecy and segregation.

When Jeffs took over, ``that's when it became more like an army,'' said Michael Chatwin, 40, who returned to Hildale this summer after 15 years away. ``It was like you were enlisted in his army, and things became more cold and callous.''

Jeffs ordered children pulled from public schools. He banned books, music, television and other forms of entertainment, unless he was the writer or performer.

Jeffs imposed dress codes that include long white undergarments. He banned bright colors, including red, the color of the devil. However, when arrested he was riding in a bright red SUV, wearing shorts and a white T-shirt _ clothes his followers are not allowed to wear.

``It's the ultimate hypocrisy,'' said Lori Chatwin, a former FLDS member and a cousin by marriage of Michael Chatwin.

Jeffs was born prematurely, and his parents considered his survival a miracle, marking him as chosen by God and bringing special attention, especially from his father, said Flora Jessop of Phoenix, who fled an abusive Colorado City family in 1996.

``That's bound to create a monster. It created somebody who held it over the other kids and made him mean,'' she said. ``If he gets upset with someone, anything or anyone they care about gets wiped away.''

There has been no indication whether Jeffs has _ or will _ secure an attorney to speak for him. In addition to the criminal charges, Jeffs has been named in lawsuits dating to 2004, but he has failed to defend himself, or even appear in court, in any of those cases, choosing instead to go into hiding. None of those cases have gone forward in his absence, but remain pending.

Former FLDS members say they hope Jeffs' capture will reveal how his demands for perfection fall flat and relieve members of the shame they say Jeffs has often heaped upon them.

``It's a window of opportunity,'' Jessop said. ``The church is absolutely not going to collapse, but I think that with Warren gone, the stranglehold he's had on the people is gone.''