What's Behind the Arrest of Warren Jeffs?

Howard Berkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent, provides information on the arrest of polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The fugitive leader of America's largest polygamist sect was arrested yesterday in Nevada. Warren Steed Jeffs heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and is charged with arranging marriages with under-aged girls. He was one of the FBI's 10 most wanted. Howard Berkes is the rural affair correspondent for NPR, and he joins us now from his office in Salt Lake City in Utah. Howard, always nice to have you on the program.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Thanks for having me back.

CONAN: Who is Warren Jeffs, and why was he wanted in two states and on the FBI's 10 most wanted list?

BERKES: Well, Warren Jeffs is a 50-year-old man who essentially inherited the leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Followers believe that he is a prophet of God, and one of the basic tenants of the faith is polygamy. And Jeffs has ruled since he became the prophet of that church with the death of his father in 2002. He has ruled with what former members say is an autocratic hand, and he presides over all the marriages in the faith. The members of the church believe that the prophet decides who should get married to whom. And he decides who gets married to whom, and he assigns young girls - former members say as young as 13 - to marry men some decades older as a reward for their loyalty.

CONAN: I also understand that the church owned most of if not all of the land that these people lived on in various towns in northern Arizona and southern Utah, and would use that control of the land as a hammer to enforce their rule.

BERKES: People have been forced from their homes for not being loyal members in the past. There have been a number of lawsuits over that issue. And so yes, the control was paramount. Also the police force was controlled by the church and still is. The public school system used to be controlled by the church. That's no longer the case. The state of Arizona has seized the school system. And all the elected officials in the twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border that are dominated by this church, all those elected officials were also members. So even if you had a complaint about Warren Jeffs or the leadership of the church, you didn't have anywhere to turn. The judges, the police, they were all loyal members.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And tell us a little bit about this church itself. When was it founded and what relationship, if any, does it have with the Mormon Church?

BERKES: Its connection with the Mormon faith is that its belief system emanates from the belief system that Joseph Smith originally had in mind when the Mormon Church was founded in the mid-1800s. And the Mormon Church dispensed with polygamy in 1890. This group was not founded until the 1930s. But it believes that it possesses the true Mormon calling, that the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are the true Mormons.

They practice the Mormon faith as Joseph Smith originally envisioned it, including the practice of polygamy. But the Mormon Church does not tolerate polygamy anymore. Anyone found to be practicing it is excommunicated. There are probably no members of Jeffs' group who were ever Mormons. Most of them grew up in his church, and so they never were Mormons to begin with.

The church does - its existence is an embarrassment, really, to the mainstream Mormon church because it recalls - it reminds people of this part of its past that it would just as soon forget.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And Mr. Jeffs, what is he likely to be charged with first and where?

BERKES: Well, that's a good question. It's unclear. There's a hearing tomorrow, and the court clerk tells me that the first state to show up will get him. And Utah has the most serious charges. These are two counts of rape as an accomplice. And that's because Warren Jeffs allegedly arranged marriages with under-age girls, and the consummation of those marriages - the sexual intercourse that took place in those marriages - is tantamount to rape under the law. And that carries a sentence of up to life in prison upon conviction in the state of Utah.

So that's the most serious charge, and the thinking is that Utah will get first crack at prosecution. Arizona has a similar charge with lesser penalties, and the prosecutors in both states are trying to sort that out now. We may know more about that tomorrow after the hearing's held in Las Vegas.

CONAN: And are there federal charges, too?

BERKES: There's a federal charge of flight to avoid prosecution, which is usually then dropped to allow the state charges to proceed. That's usually a charge that is applied more to then get federal resources involved in trying to find somebody…

CONAN: To put Warren Jeffs on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, yes.

BERKES: Get him on the FBI 10 most wanted list, get the reward up. The reward went up to $100,000, and get more resources out there in pursuit of Warren Jeffs. And because the charges involve two states, then there also were multiple states in which the searches need to be made and federal resources are much more helpful in doing that.

CONAN: Howard, thanks very much.

BERKES: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Howard Berkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent, joining us from his office in Salt Lake City, Utah. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR news.

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