Polygamist Married Off 100s of Young Girls, Former Members Say

Prophet. Religious zealot. Dangerous extremist.

These are some of the words used to describe Warren Jeffs since the 50-year-old leader of a polygamous sect was put on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list recently alongside such figures as Usama bin Laden.

Jeffs, head of a renegade Mormon splinter group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is accused of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men. He is charged with child sexual abuse in Arizona and being an accomplice to statutory rape in Utah.

Jeffs exercises extraordinary control over 10,000 or so followers who live mostly in the side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Church dissidents say that during Jeffs' four-year rule, the number of underage marriages — some to girls as young as 13 — escalated into the hundreds. Families have been fractured in the process.

According to those expelled from the community, young men are sent away so as not to compete for brides; older men are cast out for alleged disobedience, and their wives and children are reassigned by Jeffs to new husbands and fathers.

"He's committed some horrific crimes against people, and I think he views himself as untouchable," said Carolyn Jessop, who in 2003 fled an 18-year marriage to a man 32 years her senior.

Insiders are fiercely loyal and will not answer questions from reporters. Jeffs himself has not been seen publicly in nearly two years. An interview request faxed by The Associated Press to a church-owned ranch in Eldorado, Texas, where some say he has moved church headquarters, elicited no response.

"I think he's a religious pervert, an extreme zealot or a religious extremist and a control freak," said Richard Holm, who said that he was thrown out in 2003 and that his three wives and 17 children were taken without warning. "His leadership has totally disrupted whatever was good about the church."

The sect adheres to the early doctrine of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, who advocated plural marriage. The mainline Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890 and denies any connection to such fundamentalist sects.

Polygamists have lived on the Utah-Arizona line since the early 20th century. A raid on the community — then known as Short Creek — by Arizona and federal authorities in 1953 was a debacle, and law enforcement authorities turned a blind eye to the group for decades.

Jeffs assumed leadership in 2002 after the death of his 98-year-old father, Rulon Jeffs, who had 65 children by several women. Jeffs took nearly all of his father's widows as his own wives. He is said to have at least 40 wives and nearly 60 children.

The sect has long practiced the custom of arranged marriages, but dissidents say young girls were rarely married off until Jeffs came to power.

Jeffs has prophesied that the world was about to come to an end and that the second coming of Jesus Christ was at hand, only to blame church members for their lack of faith when the events failed to occur, according to excommunicated members.

"He's convinced followers that he's the mouthpiece of God," said Colorado City historian and author Ben Bistline. "We heard a rumor that he's claiming to be Jesus Christ."

Jeffs has demanded church members add $1,000 monthly to the tithe, or 10 percent, that they already pay, leaving many families living in squalor, while his own family lived well in a block-long walled compound of mansions in Hildale.

He has also ordered followers to pull their kids out of the public schools and teach them at home; banned athletics, television and all books except Scripture; and enforced a long-standing dress code that requires women to wear long pioneer-style dresses and men to button their shirt collars.

The community's youngsters rarely attend school beyond the eighth grade. Instead they go to work, the boys usually in construction, the girls at home, or in family-run businesses, such as the local dairy or food co-op.

Since the 1940s, a church trust has held all the land and buildings in the two communities. However, last June, after Jeffs failed to answer lawsuits filed against him, the state of Utah took control of the trust.

Jeffs is said to wield great influence with city leaders, police and a local judge, most of whom are members of the church. Some say close associates, or "Warrenites," serve as his spies, reporting indiscretions by members of the community back to Jeffs.

He is known to travel with bodyguards in a convoy of sport utility vehicles with tinted windows, slipping in and out of church-owned properties in Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas and Utah. Authorities also believe he may be moving back and forth across the U.S. border to enclaves in Canada and Mexico. The FBI considers Jeffs armed and dangerous.

"I'd say he has a lot of financial resources available to him, he's got a wide network of support, and he generally surrounds himself with people who distrust the government," Salt Lake City FBI spokesman Patrick Kiernan said.