Polygamists Probed

The Utah AG's office vows aggressive prosecution of fundamentalist Mormons who "marry" young girls

The spiritual leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect along the Arizona-Utah border apparently fathered a child with a second underage girl he considers one of his many wives, according to Utah birth records obtained by New Times.

A Utah birth certificate shows that 47-year-old Warren Jeffs is the father of a baby girl delivered by Lori Steed, who was 17 years, 11 months, two days old at the time of conception, based on a full-term gestation. The baby, Elizabeth Jeffs, was born in Hildale, Utah, on May 9, 2001.

The revelation about Jeffs comes at the same time as details surface about how Arizona and Utah law enforcement officials botched the arrest of fugitive polygamist Orson William Black, and subsequently allowed his wives and children -- including his alleged sexual-abuse victims -- to flee to a hideout in Mexico.

Washington County (Utah) sheriff's deputies at Orson William Black's house.
Courtesy of KTVK-TV Channel 3
Washington County (Utah) sheriff's deputies at Orson William Black's house.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: "They want to get them pregnant when they are still kids."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: "They want to get them pregnant when they are still kids."

The Arizona Attorney General's Office in February charged Black, 42, with five felonies related to sexual misconduct with two underage sisters. The women -- Roberta Stubbs, now 20, and Beth Stubbs, now 19 -- have refused to cooperate with authorities in the prosecution.

The Black family's sudden relocation to Mexico is a serious setback to Arizona's first effort in 50 years to prosecute a polygamist on sexual misconduct charges, says Don Conrad, the AG's chief criminal investigator.

The lack of even reluctant witnesses to testify against Black makes it "extremely difficult" for the state to proceed with a criminal case, Conrad says.

The Black family's international flight comes at the same time as more evidence surfaces showing that underage girls enter into polygamous marriages performed by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) based in Colorado City, Arizona.

New Times reported recently ("Fornicating for God," March 20) that Jeffs, who is considered to be the FLDS prophet, is also the father of a baby delivered by Mildred Annie Jessop. Records indicate that the girl was 17 years, six months old at the time of conception based on complete gestation.

The reclusive Jeffs avoids the media and rarely makes public appearances. He could not be reached for comment.

It is a felony in Utah for a person at least 10 years older to have sexual relations with a 16- or 17-year-old who is not his legal spouse. Last month, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt signed into law a bill that makes "marrying" a second girl who is under the age of 18 a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

The FLDS is a renegade branch of the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church. It is estimated to have 10,000 members scattered across the intermountain West. Colorado City, its headquarters town, is adjacent to Hildale, on the north side of the state line. The closed society in the area is hostile to outsiders and expels its own members if they question religious leaders.

Jeffs is married in the eyes of his church to more than a dozen females housed in a fenced compound in Hildale. Jeffs is the only FLDS official ordained to perform plural marriages and his arrest on sexual misconduct charges would be a major blow to the church.

The discovery of a second underage "spiritual" wife is expected to intensify scrutiny of Jeffs and other FLDS members. The Utah Attorney General's Office is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into criminal activity by the church that has now expanded to include federal law enforcement agencies.

"We are taking a look at this from an organized-crime standpoint," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff tells New Times.

Shurtleff says his office is "trying to get some cooperation with the feds looking for potential violations that might come under RICO and [involve allegations that some FLDS leaders are the same as] crime bosses."

Shurtleff declined to elaborate on the extent of the investigation, but he says it includes the FLDS in Hildale and other polygamous communities scattered across Utah. Shurtleff was emphatic that his office intends to aggressively prosecute polygamists who are involved in sexual misconduct with minors.

"I want them to get the message that we will prosecute," Shurtleff says. "We want to get two, three or four cases under our belt."

Shurtleff says FLDS officials have told him they are against the marriage of girls 15 years and younger, but that 16- and 17-year-olds are fair game. Shurtleff says he told FLDS leaders he will prosecute if they force teenagers under 18 into polygamy.

"They want to get them pregnant when they are still kids," Shurtleff says. "[They want them] married and pregnant and working in a job where they have no money and no hope and where they are locked in."

Shurtleff, who is a member of the mainstream Mormon Church, says he has met with Utah county attorneys and told them he is willing to prosecute any polygamy-related sexual misconduct and welfare-fraud cases that may arise.

Shurtleff is likely to run into stiff opposition from the politically well-connected FLDS polygamists who hold powerful sway in Washington County, Utah, politics. The FLDS has a long-standing reputation for delivering block votes in local elections.

State investigators already have been challenged by the FLDS in more serious ways that could have led to a dangerous confrontation. Last year, Shurtleff says, his investigators were confronted by FLDS members after agents began photographing Jeffs' expansive home during an unsuccessful attempt to serve subpoenas to get documents.

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