Fugitive Polygamist Arrested in Las Vegas

Polygamist Warren Jeffs, one of the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives, has been arrested near Las Vegas after a traffic stop. Jeffs had been fleeing state and federal charges that he arranged marriages between underage girls and older male members of his religious group, where Jeffs is considered a prophet.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Las Vegas, federal agents have in custody one of the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives. He is Warren Jeffs - the leader of a polygamist sect. He's wanted on federal and state charges for allegedly arranging multiple marriages involving underage girls and older men. NPR's Howard Berkes has covered Mr. Jeffs' group for more than 20 years. He joins us now from Salt Lake City.

Howard, Warren Jeffs is on the same FBI wanted poster as Osama bin Laden. This is not a place where people normally windup for non-violent crimes.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

No. And in fact, the federal charge involved here is flight to avoid prosecution, which doesn't sound like something that would get you on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. But it's the state charges that have concerned both federal and state officials, and authorities in both Arizona and Utah have charged Jeffs with sex crimes involving underage girls.

Now, Jeffs is not himself accused of engaging in illicit sexual activity - he's accused of arranging polygamous marriages that involve underage girls. Former members of Jeffs' group have said that that's a common practice and it has triggered outrage even among other polygamists, but most importantly among the general public and law enforcement officials in both states.

CHADWICK: Well, what can you tell us about this group of his?

BERKES: Jeffs is believed to be the prophet of this group - there are about 6,000 or so members. The group is called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Most members live in twin towns that straddle the Utah-Arizona border. Those towns are completely dominated by members of the group. The police force, the elected officials - they were all run by people who are members of the group.

Former members say that Jeffs has ruled with a heavy hand. He has, in fact, kicked out of the group hundreds of boys and men who were considered unworthy. Some had been former allies - that's perceived as a power grab. He also allegedly reassigned the wives and children of some of those men to members who were perceived to be more loyal.

CHADWICK: And what about this alleged practice of assigning underage girls to older men as wives?

BERKES: The polygamists in Jeffs' group believe that three wives are required for a man's salvation in the after life. This is a brand of polygamy that was actually once taught by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. And Mormons abandoned polygamy officially in 1890 - and Jeffs' group doesn't have any connection with the mainstream church now.

But Jeffs and his followers believe that they're practicing the Mormon Faith as it was intended to be practiced. Now, this part is just speculation, but many people who have observed this group for sometime believe that it turned to underage girls because there weren't enough women to go around otherwise. And some say the marriages involving these underage girls are really more basic than that - they are sexual predation by pedophiles.

CHADWICK: Is this arrest supposed to be someway to actually deter this group, or is it just Warren Jeffs himself that the authorities are after?

BERKES: This is part of a much larger series of prosecutions involving members of this group and a few other polygamists. If the prosecution is successful, it perhaps could serve as a deterrent because Warren Jeffs is the biggest fish in this sea of polygamists that continues to exist.

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

BERKES: You're welcome, Alex.

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