LAS VEGAS – The charismatic leader of a polygamous sect was captured during a traffic stop three months after being put on the FBI's Most Wanted List and faces charges he arranged marriages between underage girls and older men.
Warren Steed Jeffs, 50, was arrested without incident just outside Las Vegas late Monday after more than a year on the run, the FBI said. No weapons were found, but the 2007 red Cadillac Escalade he was riding in was filled with items including three wigs, 15 cell phones and tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards, authorities said.
Jeffs has led the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2002 and is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children. Church dissidents say that underage marriages — some involving girls as young as 13 — escalated into the hundreds under his leadership, and that he broke apart families by casting out married men and reassigning their women and children to others.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told KTAR-AM of Phoenix that Jeffs' arrest marks "the beginning of the end of ... the tyrannical rule of a small group of people over the practically 10,000 followers of the FLDS sect." He predicted it will lead more people to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.
Most of the church's members live in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Arizona, but authorities have said they believe Jeffs had "safe houses" in four other U.S. states — including Nevada — and Canada.
Jeffs' vehicle was stopped on Interstate 15 for having a temporary Colorado license tag that was not easily readable, FBI and Nevada Highway Patrol officials said.
John E. Lewis, special agent in charge of the FBI Phoenix division, said the trooper became suspicious when Jeffs identified himself as John Findley using a contact lens receipt from Florida as identification.
"That would commonly say to the average police officer that there is something wrong, so I am going to continue to probe just a little bit," Lewis said.
Jeffs confirmed his identity to an FBI agent who was called to the scene. He would not tell investigators where he had been hiding out, but he did say "that he was being subject to what he termed religious prosecutions," Lewis said.
Items inside the vehicle included $54,000 (euro42,160) in cash, gift cards totaling $10,000 (euro7,800), the cell phones and wigs, four laptop computers, a GPS device, a police scanner, and numerous unopened envelopes that were thought to contain more cash, Lewis said.
Jeffs was being held Tuesday in Clark County jail, awaiting a court hearing on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
The two people traveling with him, wife Naomi Jeffs and a brother, Isaac Steed Jeffs, both 32, were released and will not be charged, FBI agent Steven Martinez said.
Jeffs is wanted in Utah and Arizona on charges of arranging two marriages between underage girls and older men. The charges include two counts of rape as an accomplice in Utah, with each count punishable by up to life in prison.
He had been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list since May, with a $100,000 (euro78,000) reward offered for information leading to his capture.
The FLDS Church split from the mainstream Mormon Church when the Mormons disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago. Warren Jeffs took over the renegade sect after the death of his 98-year-old father, Rulon Jeffs, who was said to have had 65 children by several women. Warren Jeffs took nearly all his father's widows as his own wives.
Jeffs has been called a dangerous extremist by those familiar with his church. Church dissidents said that while the sect has long practiced the custom of arranged marriages, young girls were rarely married off until Warren Jeffs came to power.
People expelled from the community said young men were sent away to avoid competition for brides. Older men were cast out for alleged disobedience, and their wives and children were reassigned by Jeffs to new husbands and fathers, the former members said.
"If this will bring an end to that, that will be a good thing," said Ward Jeffs, an older half-brother of Warren. "We're excited for the people down there, but we're very concerned about who might step up and take the leadership role."
It remained unclear Tuesday what would happen to the leadership of the church while Jeffs was behind bars.
Federal and state law enforcement agencies will determine whether Jeffs should be sent first to Utah or Arizona, said Steve Sorenson, a federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City. Utah's charges are more serious.