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Polygamist prophet is now a criminal defendant

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Trial of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs begins in Utah
  • Jeffs is accused of being an accomplice to rape
  • Charge stems from alleged practice of arranging marriages to underage brides
  • Jeffs leads 10,000 followers based in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Amanda Townsend and Ann O'Neill
CNN
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ARIZONA-UTAH BORDER (CNN) -- After 115 days on the FBI's most-wanted list and a year in solitary confinement in a jail called Purgatory, the leader of the nation's largest polygamist sect is going on trial in St. George, Utah.

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Polygamist sect leader Warren Steed Jeffs is accused of arranging marriages to underage girls.

Warren Steed Jeffs, 51, holds the title of President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the FLDS. He stands accused of being an accomplice to rape. The trial is in its fourth day of jury selection.

The charges stem from Jeffs' alleged practice of arranging marriages between adult male followers and underage brides.

The young accuser at the center of the trial is under police protection. "Jane Doe," as she is known in court documents, was 14 at the time she says Jeffs forced her into a "spiritual marriage" with a 19-year-old first cousin.Video Watch how Jeffs went from prophet to defendant »

The two were married in Las Vegas by the prophet. "The whole time I was there I was crying. I wanted to die. I was so scared," the reluctant child bride testified at a preliminary hearing.

She told authorities her husband's demands for sex made her uncomfortable. But when she sought the advice of the prophet, she says he told her it was her spiritual duty to submit to her husband, who is her "priesthood head and leader." If she didn't, he warned, she'd lose her "salvation," according to an affidavit.

Those are the simple elements of the prosecution's case in the rape-accomplice trial, now in the jury selection phase. But a lot is at stake in this desolate stretch of desert along the Utah-Arizona border.

The trial of Warren Jeffs is expected to pull back the curtain on a secretive community and what critics say are the abusive practices of its leaders.

The estimated 10,000 FLDS members are taught that outsiders are wicked. They are forbidden to watch television or movies. The only music they hear are tapes of Jeffs singing hymns. And, like "Jane Doe," girls as young as 13 are forced into marriages arranged by FLDS leaders, investigators and those who have left the sect say.

The judge presiding over the trial, James L. Shumate, recently ruled that two former followers, now ardent critics, can testify about Jeffs' influence over FLDS marriages and couples' sex lives.

One of Jeffs' lawyers, Walter Bugden Jr., recently told CNN that Jeffs and his flock "absolutely" believe he is being persecuted by authorities. Jailers told the Salt Lake Tribune that Jeffs has open sores on his knees because he is constantly praying in his cell.

The list of potential witnesses contains the names of about 70 followers, including 25 with the surname Barlow, and 16 named Jessop. Both names are common in the sect.

The FLDS is not to be confused with the Mormon church, which abandoned polygamy in 1890. The church renounces the polygamous FLDS, which in turn believes it is practicing the true religion of founder Joseph Smith.

The FLDS stayed under the radar for decades after a 1953 raid on the sect's compound, then known as Short Creek. At the time, the raid played badly with the public, which was outraged by photos of men, women and children in custody. The perceived violation of religious freedom cost Arizona's governor the next election, according to historical accounts.

For more than 50 years, the FLDS was happy to keep to itself, and authorities steered clear as well.

FLDS members live in isolation in the adjacent towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. Other compounds have sprung up in such far-flung locales as South Dakota; Texas; British Colombia, Canada; and the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. But the area around Hildale and Colorado City remains the sect's home base.

As their faith dictates, followers cover themselves from chin to toe in prairie-style garb. Women wear long, pastel-colored prairie dresses, and men dress in long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Former followers say red, thought to be the color of evil, is banned.

Jeffs, the son of a prophet, became the prophet himself five years ago. He was raised in an FLDS compound near Salt Lake City, Utah, and taught for a while at the sect's Alta Academy. His father, Rulon T. Jeffs, ruled as prophet from 1986 until 2002, when he died at age 92. Jeffs claimed he had received a revelation that he was to follow in his father's footsteps.

Followers believe Jeffs is a prophet, a blood descendant of Jesus who receives revelations directly from God. His critics, much smaller in number but increasingly vocal, call him a pervert who rules over his compound kingdom like a tyrant.

Soon after Warren Jeffs succeeded his father, the outside world began to hear from defectors and exiles. The turmoil led to lawsuits, which brought scrutiny from outsiders.

Under Jeffs, exiles charged, followers were taught that men couldn't get into the highest level of heaven without at least three wives. Women were ordered to submit to their husbands, who were their ticket to heaven. And, they were ordered to give birth every year to "replenish the earth."

A tape of a Jeffs sermon was leaked and has been widely circulated and quoted in court documents: Listen to the words of the 'prophet' »

He believes God is coming to sweep the sinners from the earth, leaving the FLDS to repopulate the world and flourish. His statements about blacks led the Southern Poverty Law Center to list the FLDS as a hate organization.

Former followers have painted a grim picture of compound life in interviews with CNN. They say incest, child molestation and spousal abuse are rampant. Disobedient wives who don't "keep sweet" have been sent to mental institutions.

Jeffs' first official act after he claimed the title of prophet was to remove all FLDS children from the public schools. According to the Arizona Daily Star, more than 1,200 children were enrolled in the Colorado City Unified School District in 2000. By 2005, only 250 children remained.

FLDS children are said to be home schooled, although former members say girls are either placed in arranged marriages or stay home to learn domestic skills. Boys are typically put to work at age 12 or 13 at church-owned construction sites.

Jeffs also excommunicated more than a dozen men, redistributing their homes and wives to the other followers.

Richard Holm was one of those men, his three wives and children taken away. He'll be testifying against Jeffs at the trial. He told CNN last year that he considers Jeffs to be "an extreme religious zealot."

Still bitter, Holm called Jeffs "a pervert."

Carolyn Jessop, another former follower, told CNN last year: "He's ruthless and he's ruled over this community with an iron fist and tyranny."

As many as 400 boys and young men have been thrown onto the street or have run away. Known as the Lost Boys, half a dozen teens and young men charged in a lawsuit that they'd been banished to eliminate the competition for young brides.

The flurry of civil lawsuits led to a summit of state and local authorities, who came up with a plan for prosecuting polygamy in the desert. Gary Engels, a special investigator for the Mohave County prosecutor's office, set up shop in a triple-wide trailer in Colorado City.

"It is remarkable to me that this community exists in the United States," he said. "You have what I would call a total theocracy here. It is totally controlled by the church and the church leaders."

Under scrutiny, Jeffs went underground. In May 2006, he joined Osama bin Laden on the FBI's most wanted list.

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On August 28, 2006, the red Cadillac Escalade the prophet was riding in was pulled over outside Las Vegas, Nevada. His brother was driving. One of his wives, Naomi, was at his side. Police found wigs, sunglasses, computers, iPods and $54,000 in cash sewn into the lining of a suitcase.

And so it was that the prophet became the defendant who sits in Utah's Purgatory Correctional Facility awaiting trial. After the Utah trial, Jeffs faces more charges in Arizona. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Gary Tuchman, Randi Kaye and Dan Simon contributed to this report.

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