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Polygamist Cult Leader Arrested

After more than a year on the run and three months on the FBI's Most Wanted List, the leader of a polygamous sect was captured during a routine traffic stop and now faces charges he arranged marriage
( [email protected] ) Aug 30, 2006 01:08 PM EDT

LAS VEGAS -- After more than a year on the run and three months on the FBI's Most Wanted List, the charismatic leader of a polygamous sect was captured during a routine traffic stop and now 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, the FBI said Tuesday. No weapons were found, but the 2007 red Cadillac Escalade he was riding in was filled with items including three wigs, 15 cell phones, $54,000 in cash and $10,000 in gift cards, authorities said.

Jeffs leads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that broke away from the Mormon church a century ago. He 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, Ariz., but authorities have said they believe Jeffs had "safe houses" in four other states - including Nevada - and Canada.

Jeffs' vehicle was stopped on Interstate 15 for having a temporary Colorado license tag that wasn't easily readable, FBI and Nevada Highway Patrol officials said.

State Trooper Eddie Dutchover told The Associated Press he felt something was amiss.

"Something was obviously wrong," Dutchover said. "I even told him, 'You're making me nervous. Is everything OK?'

"He said, 'Everything's fine,"' Dutchover said. "He just stared straight ahead."

Dutchover called other officers. Even when Sgt. David Miller found letters in the car addressed to "President Warren Jeffs," Jeffs refused to give his name.

Jeffs identified himself as John Findley, using a contact lens receipt from Florida as identification.

"Once the FBI got there," Dutchover said, "he gave his full name, Warren Jeffs, and kind of gave a sigh."

Jeffs 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," said FBI agent John E. Lewis.

Items inside the vehicle also included 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 Thursday 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 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 in 2002 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.

Jeffs Once Boasted He Was 'Protected By God'

Jeffs told his lieutenants he was invincible, protected by God from capture, investigators say. According to Utah's attorney general, bodyguards for the polygamist sect leader had promised a gunfight and said they would die for him.

Those vows, fortunately, amounted to nothing Monday night.

Jeffs had no weapons, no bodyguards. Just a red 2007 Cadillac Escalade with one of his brothers, one of his wives, tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards, several cell phones and laptop computers, three wigs, and a contact lens receipt authorities say he tried to use as a fake ID.

Jeffs had been wanted for more than a year on charges that he arranged marriages between underage girls and older men. He had at least 40 wives, scores of children, thousands of followers and control over millions of dollars from a church trust.

He had safe houses in several states and messengers to carry his orders to the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where he ruled by fiat over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints since the death of his father in 2002.

"Now that he's in custody, he's away from those folks. I think you're going to see a lot of changes within the FLDS community as far as their fear of him, their loyalty to him," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "We're hoping that loyalty that will start to crumble, and that other witnesses will come forward with (information about) other potential crimes."

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 too predicted it will lead more people to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.