Polygamist fugitive Warren Jeffs arrested in Nevada
LAS VEGAS (AP) – The charismatic leader of a polygamous religious sect was captured during a traffic stop three months after being put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and 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 after more than a year on the run, the FBI said. No weapons were found, but the 2007 red Cadillac Escalade he was riding in contained more than $50,000 in cash, cell phones, laptop computers, a police scanner and wigs, authorities said.
Jeffs has led the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints since 2002 and 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 wives and children to others.
The FLDS Church split from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the Mormons disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
Most of the church’s 10,000 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.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said the arrest sent “a very important message for the people of Colorado City because many of them have lived in fear of this man, this tyrant.” Goddard predicted it will lead more people to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.
Jeffs brother, Isaac Steed Jeffs, was driving the SUV, which was stopped on Interstate 15 for having a temporary Colorado license tag that wasn’t easily readable, FBI and Nevada Highway Patrol officials said.
Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Eddie Dutchover told The Associated Press he felt something was amiss, but didn’t know the man sitting silently in the back seat was the fugitive religious sect leader.
“Something was obviously wrong,” said Dutchover, whose training with a Department of Public Safety suspicious vehicle task force helped him notice an artery pulsing in Warren Jeffs’ neck. “I even told him, ‘You’re making me nervous. Is everything OK?’
“He said everything’s fine,” Dutchover said Tuesday. “He just stared straight ahead.”
Dutchover called other troopers and a sergeant. 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.”
John E. Lewis, special agent in charge of the FBI Phoenix division, characterized Jeffs as cordial but uncooperative.
“He did not respond to any questions that were posed to him concerning his whereabouts,” Lewis said. “He did indicate to the interviewing agents that he was being subject to what he termed religious prosecutions.”
Inside the vehicle, authorities found $54,000, 15 cell phones, four portable radios, a duffel bag containing numerous unopened envelopes that were thought to contain more cash, three wigs, sunglasses, four laptops, a GPS device, a police scanner and gift cards totaling $10,000, Lewis said.
Jeffs was being held Tuesday without bail at the Clark County jail, pending an extradition hearing Thursday morning in a Las Vegas court. 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.
A wife, Naomi Jeffs, also was in the vehicle. She and Isaac Jeffs, both 32, were released without being charged, said Steven Martinez, FBI special agent in charge in Las Vegas.
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.
The felony charge in Arizona, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor, carries a possible penalty of up to two years in prison.
Jeffs had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since May, with a $100,000 reward offered for information leading to his capture.
Authorities said they weren’t sure why Jeffs might have been in Las Vegas. Church members and affiliated businesses had reportedly been migrating to southern Nevada to escape the spotlight in Utah and Arizona.
Miller, the NHP sergeant, said another member of the Jeffs family was pulled over by troopers on July 26 about a mile from where Jeffs was arrested late Monday. Miller said no summons was issued in the earlier stop.
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 Jeffs came to power.
Jeffs took over the church 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.
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.
– Associated Press writers Paul Foy and Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City and Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.