Longform

Persecution Complex

The recent conviction of Mormon polygamist leader Warren Steed Jeffs on two felony counts of rape as an accomplice is a huge public relations victory for Utah and Arizona authorities who have been under intense pressure to crack down on so-called "spiritual" marriages of underage girls.

But it is doubtful that the conviction of the leader of the nation's largest polygamist sect — considered by his followers to be God's prophet on Earth — will stop illegal marriages of children or stem polygamy.

That Jeffs is headed for prison will not even mean a new prophet will reign over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Insiders say Jeffs' second-in-command, Wendell Nielsen, is running day-to-day operations of the church but that Warren, reminiscent of top organized crime figures, will rule the FLDS from behind bars. That includes deciding who will marry whom in the religion.

More than 50 years of government indifference toward widespread abuses within the FLDS has allowed the sect to grow from fewer than 400 people scratching out a living on the remote Arizona Strip in 1953 to an economic powerhouse with more than 10,000 members spread across the West.

The sheer size and wealth of the rapidly reproducing congregation, which accounts for only a quarter of the estimated number of polygamists in Arizona and Utah, have forced law enforcement to focus on the most notorious crimes while conceding that little will be done to stem a practice that violates the Arizona and Utah constitutions and has been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, Jeffs' high-profile arrest while on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List and subsequent conviction on felony charges — which could bring him life in prison — have focused the nation's attention on abuses that have flourished for decades within the closed FLDS society.

Authorities hope the conviction will give hope to those trapped inside polygamist groups, that it will encourage more victims of child and spousal abuse to step forward.

Brock Belnap, county attorney of Washington County, Utah, hailed the victim in the Jeffs case, 21-year-old Elissa Wall, as a courageous "pioneer" who challenged FLDS leaders and endured shunning by family and friends to bring Jeffs to justice.

"She stood and took the stand and withstood attacks on her credibility and reputation with honor and with dignity," Belnap said.

Wall was only 14 when she was forced to marry her 19-year-old first cousin in a fundamentalist ceremony performed by Warren Jeffs in April 2001. Wall left the FLDS in 2004 and filed a lawsuit in December 2005 against Jeffs and the church. Her suit spurred Washington County prosecutors to file criminal charges against Jeffs in April 2006. Jeffs was arrested in August 2006 during a traffic stop on Interstate 15 northeast of Las Vegas and has been held in jail at Washington County's Purgatory Correctional Facility. Jeffs is scheduled to be sentenced November 20 and could then be transferred to Arizona, where he faces criminal charges in Mohave County.

Wall testified that she felt "trapped" and had to go forth with the arranged marriage and submit to unwanted sexual relations with her cousin to stay in the good graces of religious leaders who she believed controlled her spiritual destiny.

"I hope that all FLDS girls and women will understand that no matter what anyone may say, you are created equal," Wall told a horde of reporters after the verdict. "You do not have to surrender your rights or your spiritual sovereignty."

Authorities argue that Jeffs' conviction will make it clear to fundamentalist leaders that they will be dealt with harshly if they use religious indoctrination to convince young girls that their only hope of salvation is to marry into polygamous families.

"Let this verdict be a warning to anyone else who believes that forcing young girls to marry older men is acceptable and without consequence," declared Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff moments after an eight-member jury returned the verdict on September 25.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard concurred, stating that the "verdict sends a message that forcing girls under the legal age of consent to 'marry' older men is not only unacceptable, it is illegal."

Beyond the swaggering press releases and away from the glare of staged news conferences on the plaza outside Utah's Fifth District Court, where Judge James L. Shumate presided over the weeklong show trial, a far greater battle was being fought and quietly won by polygamy advocates.

As Jeffs, 51, is facing five years to life in prison, the attorneys general in Utah and Arizona have announced they will not prosecute consenting adults for engaging in plural marriage.

"We are not going to go out there and persecute people for their beliefs," Goddard declared.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty