Fornicating for God

As the case of a snatched Mormon girl from Salt Lake City unfolds, polygamists along the Arizona-Utah border face legal scrutiny

The leader of a renegade branch of the Mormon Church, now 47, had sexual relations with an underage girl who bore him a daughter in July 2000, records obtained by New Times indicate.

Warren Jeffs, Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (FLDS), apparently lives with the child's mother, now 21, and at least 13 other wives in a fenced compound in Hildale, Utah. The town is adjacent to Colorado City, Arizona, along the border between the two states. Fundamentalist Mormons have openly practiced polygamy in this remote Arizona Strip region for more than 70 years.

Sexual contact with 16- or 17-year-olds is illegal in Utah for people who are 10 years older, unless couples are legally married – which would be impossible in polygamous unions in all but first marriages, since a state law bans polygamy in Utah, and Arizona's constitution prohibits the practice.

Evidence of Jeffs' apparent illegal sexual relations with a minor comes at the same time that more information is surfacing about the bizarre kidnapping of Salt Lake City teenager Elizabeth Smart, and her ensuing relationship with polygamist Brian Mitchell (a.k.a. Immanuel).

Meanwhile – for the first time in 50 years – the State of Arizona has filed felony sexual misconduct with a minor charges against a Colorado City-area polygamist and former FLDS member. The charges were unsealed a day before it was announced that Smart had surfaced alive, after she was abducted at knifepoint from her bed last June 5.

A Utah birth certificate indicating Jeffs' alleged sexual conduct with an underage girl and Arizona's filing charges against a polygamist increase tension in the outsider-unfriendly Colorado City-Hildale area that long has feared police incursion. Arizona law-enforcement officials have expressed concern that fanatic supporters of Jeffs might resort to violence to prevent any effort to take him into custody, turning the polygamist colony into another Waco, Texas.

Like the Mormon Church's founders, Mitchell is said to have received a revelation that God had restored the "celestial law of polygamy."

Introduced by church founder Joseph Smith and promoted by his successor, Brigham Young, polygamy was a tenet of the Salt Lake City-based faith from the 1850s until it was disavowed in the 1890s. The mainstream church began excommunicating polygamists in the 1920s, though members continue to believe in polygamy in the afterlife.

Mitchell, who was excommunicated from the mainstream church, appears to have kidnapped Smart to make her his second of what he vowed would be eight wives. Investigators reported that his legal wife, Wanda Barzee, 57, claimed Mitchell was instructed through revelations to take seven young wives, because they would be more likely to submit to plural marriage.

Smart, who appears to have cooperated to some degree with Mitchell, has been raised in an affluent Mormon family. Obedience to men is stressed in Mormon culture.

There is no evidence that Mitchell had any direct connection to the FLDS, a fortress of polygamy in the West, with about 6,000 devotees living in the northern Arizona and southern Utah enclave. But there are indications that Mitchell shares much of the FLDS' philosophy.

Hundreds of teenage girls – some younger than the 15-year-old Smart – have been joined with older men in legally unsanctioned "spiritual" marriages performed by FLDS elders in the Colorado City-Hildale area.

FLDS members believe polygamy is the only way to reach the highest levels of heaven. The FLDS bases its belief on a doctrine called the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, a manuscript that Mitchell also embraces.

Mitchell's desire for seven more wives is modest compared to the insatiable quest for females by FLDS leaders. Warren Jeffs succeeded his father, Rulon, as the leader of the church after the 92-year-old's death last September. Rulon was believed to have had upwards of 70 wives, some of whom have since become his son's spiritual spouses.

The birth certificate obtained by New Times is the first substantial evidence that an FLDS leader has engaged in illegal sexual conduct with a minor. The certificate states that Warren Steeds Jeffs is the father of Millie Jeffs, born in Hildale on July 7, 2000. The mother is listed as Millie Annie Jessop, born March 20, 1982. Based on a nine-month gestation, Millie Anne Jessop was 17 years and seven months old at the time of conception.

Authorities say it is unlikely that Warren Jeffs was legally married to Millie Anne Jessop at the time of the conception. Warren had about 14 spiritual wives in June, 2001, including Millie, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Jeffs could not be reached for comment.

Paul Murphy, a spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, declined to comment on polygamy among FLDS faithful – or on the evidence indicating that Warren Jeffs had an illegal sexual relationship with a minor. Utah, however, has taken legal action against other FLDS polygamists based on similar documentation.

Last fall, the state filed bigamy and sexual misconduct charges against Hildale-Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm, stemming from his spiritual marriage to 16-year-old Ruth Stubbs as his third wife.

According to Utah birth certificates, Stubbs was impregnated by Holm twice before she was 18. Holm has been suspended from his police duties pending the outcome of his trial, scheduled for later this year.

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