The worldwide manhunt for fugitive polygamist leader Warren Jeffs ended when the self-proclaimed prophet was arrested north of here during a routine traffic stop on Interstate 15, police said Tuesday.
Jeffs, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, had long said he would never be taken alive. But he surrendered quietly late Monday, police said. He was unarmed.
The leader of the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wanted in Utah and Arizona for alleged involvement in underage marriages, rape and sexual assault.
Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff said he was glad the hunt ended peacefully.
“This arrest will crack his mystique and provide the opportunity for the entire story to be told in a court of law before a judge and jury,” he said. “These charges are not about the FLDS church or polygamy. No one is above the law. Mr. Jeffs will be treated like any other defendant.”
Jeffs’ arrest comes after months of local, state and federal efforts to crack down on child sexual abuse and underage marriage in the FLDS, a sect based in the adjoining towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. As prophet, Jeffs could approve marriages and evict residents.
“The arrest is a major step toward ending Jeffs’ tyrannical rule in Colorado City and in the FLDS,” Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard said.
The FLDS, which emphasizes polygamy, is accused of widespread sexual abuse of women and children, welfare fraud, breaking up families, looting schools, driving out boys to reduce competition for wives, and employing children in often dangerous construction jobs.
The sect was the subject of an investigation by The Times in May that helped focus attention on the abuses and on the failure of outside authorities to intervene for nearly half a century.
Since then, police have raided the homes of several men accused of marrying underage girls in Colorado City. The trials of eight men charged with having sex with minors began this summer in Kingman, Ariz. The first resulted in the conviction of Kelly Fischer, sentenced last month to 45 days in jail and three years’ probation. A second member went on trial this week.
The U.S. Department of Labor last week sought an injunction against a Hildale contractor, saying it used 14- and 15-year-old boys for hazardous construction work.
Arizona has cracked down on financial irregularities in the FLDS-controlled local school district. The state board of education seized control and appointed a receiver.
Authorities in Arizona and Utah have decertified polygamous police officers, broken up an FLDS trust that had expelled residents from their homes, removed a polygamous judge from the bench and placed an investigator in Colorado City to focus on sexual abuse.
“The prosecution of Jeffs is part of that picture, showing that the law will be enforced,” Goddard said. “The important message is that nobody is above the law -- as he apparently told his followers he was.”
Investigators said Jeffs eluded the law by shuttling back and forth among loyal followers and compounds in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and South Dakota. The FLDS recently completed a huge temple in Eldorado, Texas.
“I’m surprised he was stupid enough to come off that Texas ranch,” said Sam Brower, a private investigator who has tracked Jeffs for three years. “He just got caught and there was no one to protect him; he had no choice but to go quietly.”
A Nevada highway patrolman stopped a red Cadillac Escalade around 9 p.m. Monday because the vehicle license tags were not visible. He found Jeffs inside with one of his estimated 72 wives, and his brother, Isaac Jeffs, at the wheel.
Police also found a “large number” of cellphones, laptop computers, three wigs and more than $50,000 in cash, said FBI Special Agent Steven Martinez.
Jeffs, 50, initially gave a false name, but later admitted his identity, the agent said. Both of his companions were released.
Perhaps no outsider knows the FLDS better than Rodney Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented church members and has been their frequent guest since 1990.
Parker, who is not a church member, said “Jeffs was targeted as a proxy to destroy this religious movement,” but predicted his arrest would have little effect on Jeffs’ followers.
“The opposite will happen,” he said. “The people will rally behind him.”
But alleged victims of Jeffs and of the FLDS applauded his capture.
“Warren has been flouting the law for a long time, and it’s appropriate that he has to face the music,” said Richard Holm, 53, whose wife and children were taken on Jeffs’ orders. “I’d like to think there will be more freedom here, that every person can be their own leader if they want.”
Sara Hammon, 31, says she suffered incest and sexual abuse as a child in Colorado City, and left at 14 to avoid marriage.
“I’m ecstatic over the arrest. It’s ironic that he went out the way he did. It’s well-known that people in Colorado City don’t bother to get their licenses renewed,” she said. “I still think Warren will be pulling the strings from jail; the whole community is a well-oiled machine that can run itself by itself.”
Carolyn Jessop fled Colorado City in a van three years ago with her eight children and $20. One reason she left was that she feared Jeffs would marry her then-13-year-old daughter.
“It’s a wonderful day, a beautiful day,” said Jessop, now 38. “I think ... people will start breathing again and start living again.”
But like others who left the FLDS, Jessop knows problems run far deeper than Jeffs.
“My concern is that the public understand we still have the same issues. We’ve just solved a part of the problem,” she said, adding that child abuse, domestic violence and welfare fraud remain endemic.
Jeffs took over the FLDS in 2002 after his father, Rulon Jeffs, died. He immediately banned activities such as basketball, swimming, listening to music and watching television.
To reduce competition for wives, he began exiling boys as young as 13, ostensibly for infractions such as wearing short-sleeved shirts or talking to girls. The displaced youths, numbering more than 400, came to be known as the Lost Boys.
His family and former FLDS members described Jeffs as fanatical about his faith, brooking no dissent. He accelerated the marriage of underage girls, conducting ceremonies himself.
In one case, he is accused of ordering a reluctant underage bride to have sex with her new husband, warning of eternal damnation if she balked. Earlier this year, Utah investigators charged Jeffs with two counts of being an accomplice to rape.
In 2003, Jeffs called a town meeting and publicly ejected 20 FLDS leaders, giving their wives and children to other men.
But it was a 2004 lawsuit filed by nephew Brent Jeffs that sent Jeffs underground. The nephew said that when he was 5, his uncle repeatedly sodomized him at an FLDS school, telling him it would make him a man and that if he refused he would be sent to hell. Shortly after the suit was filed, Jeffs dropped out of sight. He had not been seen outside the community before Monday.
Who will succeed Jeffs as FLDS prophet is a question among members and former members alike. Jeffs’ brother Lyle is prominent within the sect, as is William Timpson, an FLDS bishop.
Parker, the Salt Lake attorney, said such speculation failed to grasp the nature of the faith.
“Being leader is an appointment, a calling from God,” he said. “The only thing that will disqualify [Warren Jeffs] will be apostasy. His arrest won’t change that. He can still run things and he might be stronger. Now, he’s seen as having taken one for the Big Guy.”
Times staff writer Woutat reported from Las Vegas, Kelly from Bishop, Calif., and Cohn from Los Angeles.