Published online January 25, 2006, 5:02 p.m. MST
The search for the fugitive leader of the fundamentalist Mormon church escalated when FBI agents entered the Colorado City, Arizona-based sect's packed meeting hall during a church-related function to serve grand jury subpoenas.
The January 14 raid on church property was the first time in 60 years that federal authorities have descended on the community for a law enforcement purpose.
The operation in Colorado City coincided with an announcement by the FBI that it was posting a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' prophet. Arizona and Utah had already posted a $10,000 reward.
Half a dozen FBI agents were involved in the operation, according to FBI spokeswoman Deborah McCarley, who declined to provide other details.
Sources close to the investigation say five subpoenas were served on community members with close ties to Jeffs, though the FBI had intended to serve 66 subpoenas had they been able to corner all those individuals.
The operation came three months after the FBI arrested an FLDS courier carrying more than $142,000 in cash and letters from church members. Seth Jeffs, one of the prophet's brothers, told FBI agents he was a church "messenger" transporting the money from Colorado City to an FLDS temple under construction in Eldorado, Texas.
Seth Jeffs has been charged with one federal count of harboring a fugitive. A hearing to consider several defense motions in his case has been set for February 21 in U.S. District Court in Denver.
The FBI grand jury subpoenas served in Colorado City appear to be related to information gathered from the arrest of Seth Jeffs. Documents contained in Seth Jeffs' vehicle included the names of FLDS members and businesses contributing money to help finance Warren Jeffs' fugitive flight.
Colorado City Mayor Richard Allred declined to respond to a reporter's question after a Town Council meeting January 23 seeking his general reaction to the raid. When asked whether he knew if Colorado City employees were served with grand jury subpoenas, Allred said, "Not that I know of."
Two key city employees who usually attend the council meetings were notably absent, including Allred's son, Joseph, who serves as Town Clerk.
Also missing was Colorado City Police Chief Fred Barlow, who usually gives a monthly report to the Town Council.
Former FLDS members who still live in the Colorado City area say that current FLDS members consider the FBI's coming onto church property a violation of their right to worship freely.
"They are comparing it to the 1953 raid, where meetings were shut down and persecution of the saints occurred," says Richard Holm, a former Colorado City councilman who has been excommunicated from the church.
In 1953, Arizona and Mohave County, Arizona, police raided what was then the small community of Short Creek and arrested about 20 adult men on bigamy charges. More than 200 women and children were removed from the community and placed as wards of the state.
The raid on what is now the Colorado City area was ordered by Arizona Governor Howard Pyle in an attempt to end the practice of polygamy. After the raid, polygamist men pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and returned to Short Creek. Women and children spent nearly two years in foster homes before a court ruling allowed them to return home.
Pyle later lost his bid for reelection, largely because of negative public reaction over the raid that separated families. For the next 50 years, Arizona political leaders ignored illegal underage marriages in the polygamist enclave north of the Grand Canyon.
Last June, a Mohave County grand jury returned seven felony indictments against Warren Jeffs in connection with Jeffs' marrying underage girls to already married men. The FLDS prophet fled Colorado City. The FBI issued a fugitive warrant for Jeffs last August and placed him on its most-wanted list.
The FBI attempted to serve the subpoenas during a Saturday morning meeting where several thousand FLDS members were gathered inside the Leroy S. Johnson meeting hall. Sources say FLDS members immediately began leaving the building, and the FBI was only able to serve a handful of the subpoenas.
"When they came in and told them they had these subpoenas to serve, everybody just got up and walked out," says Isaac Wyler, a former church member who still has family members in the FLDS.
Wyler says the FBI botched the operation by not having enough agents to cover all of the building's exits and by expecting that FLDS members would simply hang around to be served.
"I think the FBI got a heck of a wake-up call," he says. "They must have thought they were dealing with law-abiding citizens. They should have had more [agents]. They should have been guarding the doors."
Saturday morning meetings such as this one were the only time FLDS polygamists gathered regularly in one group. Warren Jeffs canceled regular church services in August 2003, after police and the media began stepping up scrutiny of activities in the isolated community.
For the past two years, the Saturday meetings were where FLDS members tithed and made other donations to the church. Much of that money, former FLDS members say, was sent directly to Warren Jeffs.
A lifelong Colorado City resident who was recently excommunicated from the FLDS says the money was typically collected by James Allred, one of Warren Jeffs' top aides. Allred would then hand the funds to other men, who would transport them out of Colorado City to other FLDS operations in Colorado and Texas.
James Allred's son, Nathaniel, was driving the vehicle that contained the more than $142,000 in cash when he and Seth Jeffs were stopped by Pueblo County sheriff deputies in October. Nathaniel Allred has not been charged in the incident.
The FBI may have lost its best opportunity to take action as a result of the January 14 incursion. For the first time in more than 10 years, the FLDS did not hold a Saturday meeting on January 21.
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Former FLDS members also say the additional $50,000 reward posted by the FBI is probably not enough money to entice a loyal church member to turn in Warren Jeffs. FLDS members believe Jeffs is God's only representative on Earth and that Jeffs holds the key to their eternal salvation.
"[FLDS members] have already given Warren their lives," says a man recently excommunicated from the group.
The FBI's attempt to serve subpoenas is expected to hasten the steady exodus of FLDS members from Colorado City and Hildale. Many residents have been relocating to other fundamentalist Mormon communities in Texas, Colorado and Canada.
"My guess is all the people who have something to lose will leave town now," says a man who was booted out of the church in November.