Family members describe the church leader as secretive, strict and "very militant about his religion."
Jeffs, 50, grew up in a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compound in Salt Lake City, where he served first as a teacher and then principal of the sect's Alta Academy.
"Warren was very reserved, very starchy," said his brother Ward. "He was an intelligent man, and my father always favored him."
Warren Jeffs is accused of repeatedly raping his then-5-year-old nephew Brent while Jeffs was at the academy. In a lawsuit filed in 2004 by Brent Jeffs, who is now 23, the church leader is said to have a history of molesting children dating back to when he was 14. The suit said the church had received complaints for years that he was abusing children yet did nothing to stop him and instead made him school principal.
Former students recall him talking graphically about sex to 5- and 6-year-old boys and constantly stressing absolute obedience -- especially on the part of girls and women.
In a transcript of a 1995 lecture to students, he said the only way for a woman to be happy was to "let her husband, a faithful man, rule over her."
Jeffs became leader when his father, FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs, died in 2002. The younger Jeffs declared that God had sent him a revelation making him prophet. No one disputed the claim.
As prophet, Jeffs immediately made his presence felt. Striding about in his trademark long white shirt, tie and jacket, members said, he issued edicts left and right.
Competitive sports were banned because they supposedly bred pride. Select "missionaries" were sent door to door to see whether people were engaged in forbidden acts such as listening to music or watching television. He closed the church building saying residents had "treated lightly the things of God." It has not reopened.
Calls for money "to build up the kingdom" increased. Along with tithing 10% of their income, Jeffs asked for an additional $1,000 per month, per family, witnesses said. Wheelbarrows were parked at podiums during public meetings for residents to toss in cash donations.
"I saw three of them filled with money at one time," said former member Brad Zitting.
Jeffs routinely evicted people from their church-owned homes or gave the family of one man to another. He seldom provided explanations but insisted they write endless repentance letters confessing their sins, letters many believe he used for blackmail or to gather intelligence about his rivals.
He expelled boys as young as 13 for wearing short-sleeved shirts, watching movies or talking to girls.
In public speeches, Jeffs prophesized that a final showdown between the faithful and the outside world was coming. Sermons were full of racist invective. Blacks are cursed by God, he said, and interracial marriage bars entry into heaven.
"The black race are the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the Earth," he has said. "Through the Negro race, the devil has kept evil alive."
Such talk led the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate the FLDS a hate group.
Jeffs often travels in convoys of SUVs with armed bodyguards. An enormous wall was erected around his Hildale, Utah, compound, with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to watch and listen.
Last month, prosecutors in Washington County, Utah, charged Jeffs with rape, as an accomplice, for allegedly encouraging a man to have sex with his underage wife without her consent.
Rodney Parker, a lawyer for the FLDS since 1990, said Jeffs had been unfairly cast as the next Jim Jones or David Koresh, cult leaders who died with their followers after violent confrontations with authorities.
"Warren is charismatic. He is intellectual. He is not crazy. He is not paranoid. He is very serious about his religion," Parker said. "He is trying to meet the expectations of God."