Police Hunt Leader of Polygamist Sect

More on the Sect

Police in three Western states are seeking the reclusive leader of a religious group which openly practices polygamy. Warren Jeffs heads the church, which dominates twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border. Jeffs and three followers were indicted this week for sexual assault and conduct involving a minor. Howard Berkes reports.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Police in three states are on the lookout for the reclusive and controversial leader of a religious group which openly practices polygamy. Warren Jeffs has been indicted on charges involving alleged sexual assault with a minor. NPR's Howard Berkes joins us now from Salt Lake City.

Howard, tell us about Warren Jeffs.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Warren Jeffs heads what's called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the FLDS church. This group dominates twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border. It controls the government there, the schools, the policing in those towns, and there are about 6,000 people who live there, most of which are members. It's believed to be one of the largest polygamist groups in the country and it's certainly one of the most persistent. It goes back about 70 years.

LUDDEN: And what exactly has Warren Jeffs been charged with?

BERKES: He's been charged with essentially facilitating an underage marriage involving a 16-year-old girl. Under the law, that's tantamount to statutory rape. It's sexual assault with a minor under the law, and Jeffs is charged with assault and conspiracy in that. This involves a situation in which Jeffs, as leader of the FLDS church, apparently ordered or arranged a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man.

LUDDEN: In a lot of states it's legal for a 16-year-old to marry with parental consent. Is that not the case in Arizona?

BERKES: It is the case in Arizona, but what is new in Arizona and also in Utah is a law that makes it illegal for a minor, a girl under 18 and a girl who would be 16 or 17, to marry someone who is already married to somebody else. That act of her marriage to a bigamist essentially is now directly illegal. That law was passed so that prosecutors could target polygamists who marry underage girls, and it also makes it illegal for anyone who facilitates that kind of marriage with a bigamist, the parents, the religious leader. In fact, that's how they built this case against Warren Jeffs.

LUDDEN: So an indictment but no arrest. Why's that?

BERKES: They don't actually know where Warren Jeffs is. They don't believe he's at the group's base in those two towns on the Utah-Arizona border. The best guess is that he may be holed up at the group's new fenced compound outside El Dorado in west Texas, and there is some concern about how Jeffs and his followers are going to react if there's an attempt to serve an arrest warrant. He and they believe that he's a prophet of God, subject to the laws of God as they see them, but not necessarily the laws of people. But there has been no history of armed violence involving this group.

LUDDEN: If this group's been around for decades, why all the attention from law enforcement now?

BERKES: There's been a lot of pressure building in the last seven years from anti-polygamy groups which have recently formed, from former members of these groups who've spoken out about these underage marriages and other instances of abuse. And prosecutors, relatively recently, placed deputies and investigators in the border towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. They've been building cases. In recent weeks, a Utah court seized control of a multimillion-dollar trust that supports the church. Arizona authorities raided the school district there, saying that it's controlled by the church. There also have been some prosecution, but indicting the leader of what is probably the nation's largest polygamist group sends a message and I think that's what prosecutors are out to do.

LUDDEN: NPR's Howard Berkes in Salt Lake City, thank you.

BERKES: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: And there's a profile of Warren Jeffs and his FLDS church at our Web site, npr.org.

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