Polygamist Church Leader Faces Extradition to Utah

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Polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs, once one of the FBI's top 10 most-wanted suspects, faces an extradition hearing Thursday in Las Vegas, where he was apprehended earlier this week after a traffic stop. Utah will prosecute Jeffs on charges he orchestrated forced marriages between underage girls and much older men in his religious group, where he is considered a prophet.


This is DAY TO DAY. You're listening to NPR now. In a few minutes hear NPR for the streets. Mad Decent Radio coming up on the program. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. First, there was an extradition hearing in Las Vegas today for the polygamist leader Warren Jeffs. He is not going to fight extradition to Utah, where he faces sexual abuse charges.

Mr. Jeffs was arrested earlier this week in Vegas after spending a year on the lamb. And earlier today I spoke with NPR's Howard Berkes. He's been following the Warren Jeffs story for years.

Howard, Warren Jeffs is wanted in Arizona and Utah and on federal charges as well. I gather he's going to Utah first. What is the case there?

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Warren Jeffs in Utah faces two counts of rape as an accomplice, and these are the most serious charges he faces, and that's why prosecutors huddled and decided that the Utah cases would proceed first. These charges stem from a polygamist marriage involving a girl between 14 and 18 years old. We don't know exactly the age because the charging documents don't give the precise age, and they don't name the girl.

But the documents alleged that Jeffs assigned this girl to a man who was at least three years older than she. He performed the marriage ceremony, and he instructed the couple to, quote, multiply and replenish the earth.

The girl told investigators that she told Jeffs she was too young to marry, that her husband forced her to have sex, and that she hated what she called husband/wife relations. Jeffs responded by telling the girl that she must give - and I'm quoting again - her mind, body and soul to her husband like she's supposed to.

She continued to protest about the marriage and the forced sex and was told by Jeffs that if she continued to fight she would lose her salvation. If convicted on these charges, Jeffs could be sentenced to as much as life in prison.

CHADWICK: And how difficult will it be for prosecutors to argue this case?

BERKES: These can be pretty tough cases because the witnesses involved aren't victims in the conventional sense that we think of them. They've grown up in these isolated communities believing that their alleged abuser here is a prophet of God who holds the keys to their eternal salvation.

So there's enormous pressure from their own religious beliefs, from also family members, other church members. In fact, earlier this week in a court in Kingman, Arizona, in a very similar case involving one of Warren Jeffs's followers, his accuser balked on the witness stand. The trial is now in disarray and the accuser is being held for contempt of court.

CHADWICK: What about the bigamy aspect of this? Because Mr. Jeffs is not just promoting under aged marriages, it's many wives.

BERKES: Polygamy, which is what Jeffs is involved in, is not itself mentioned in Utah or Arizona criminal statutes. It is banned by the constitutions, but the law that applies is bigamy, as you note, but bigamy laws are difficult to enforce when it comes to polygamists. They're designed to stop men who engage in multiple legal marriages, and polygamist don't do that. They have one legal marriage which is recognized by the state, and then their other marriages are spiritual marriages; they're not recognized by the state.

There also are no complaining witnesses. Polygamist's wives generally consent to these marriages. They don't consider themselves victims. That leaves prosecutors with filing charges maybe based on cohabitation. That's illegal. But there are an awful lot of people who are not polygamists who cohabit and that would raise a constitutional issue of selective prosecution.

CHADWICK: The other question about Mr. Jeffs being in custody now is, what happens to this community or these communities of perhaps 10,000 followers? Where do they go, what do they do?

BERKES: Well, this is difficult to ferret out because neither Warren Jeffs nor his followers speak with reporters or any other outsiders. But I think it's safe to say that it would take more than this to leave them leaderless. These people believe that Warren Jeffs alone is a prophet of God. And it's not inconceivable that he could still run the church from jail. I mean he's already received a visit from one of his brothers.

We know that, you know, mafia types and gang leaders are able to run criminal enterprises from jail, so it's not hard to believe that he might be able to continue to run his church from jail if his visitation rights or his mail and phone privileges are not restricted.

Also, this may feed the notion that these people have that they are being persecuted. It may embolden their faith. It may strengthen their faith in their religion and in Warren Jeffs.

CHADWICK: Howard Berkes speaking with us from Salt Lake City. We'll just note these communities that we speak of, the 10,000 followers, are mostly in these two towns, Hilldale Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Howard, thank you again.

BERKES: You're welcome, Alex.

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