Plundering the Faithful

Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs continued to elude a nationwide manhunt at the end of 2005 as the fundamentalist Mormon municipalities he controls along the Arizona-Utah border headed toward financial disaster.

Jeffs, 50, was named to the FBI's most wanted list last August after he fled the largest polygamist community in North America to avoid prosecution on seven felony counts brought by a grand jury in Mohave County, Arizona. The charges, filed last June, allege that Jeffs illegally performed the "spiritual" marriages of three underage girls to already-married men and ordered the men to consummate the unions.

Jeffs is the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church that still practices polygamy. The mainstream Mormon Church gave up polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's obtaining statehood.

In the months since the indictments, evidence that the economy of the polygamist communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, is plunging toward collapse is obvious. Many businesses have closed or moved out, the Colorado City and Hildale governments are facing serious financial problems, the electric utility jointly owned by both towns is in default on $21 million in bonds and the Colorado City public school district has been forced into receivership.

Most telling is the fact that Jeffs has relinquished control over the $111 million United Effort Plan trust that owns nearly all the land and buildings in the twin towns that straddle the state line.

Jeffs walked away from the UEP trust when he failed to come out of hiding and defend himself in two lawsuits filed in 2004 by former FLDS members. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, with the support of Arizona AG Terry Goddard, convinced a Utah state court to place control of the UEP trust in the hands of a special fiduciary, whose job is to protect the trust's assets.

One of the suits alleges that Jeffs repeatedly raped a male nephew when the child was about 5 years old; the other alleges that he forced scores of young boys to leave town to reduce competition for wives with older men in high standing with the church.

Earlier this month, Jeffs was slapped with another lawsuit. In this one, an unnamed FLDS woman living near Cedar City, Utah, says Jeffs forced her as an underage girl into a polygamous marriage.

Gregory Hoole, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the plaintiffs in all three cases, says Warren Jeffs' failure to defend himself in court and his subsequent forfeiting of control of the UEP are clear signals that the prophet has abandoned Colorado City and Hildale.

"He isn't going to spend one single red cent on protecting the towns or the trust!" Hoole declares. "He will let the towns disintegrate while he continues to fleece the people."

While Jeffs no longer has total economic control of the community, he still has immense influence over the lives of the thousands of FLDS members who remain in the towns north of the Grand Canyon, about 50 miles southeast of St. George, Utah.

About 10,000 FLDS members in Colorado City, Hildale and in other smaller polygamist communities in North America continue to worship Jeffs as an infallible god. The faithful continue to place an enormous amount of money in his control in the form of "tithes," as well as provide him safe havens from the police. He is believed to have floated among several polygamist communities from British Columbia to west Texas, where the church is building a lavish temple near the town of Eldorado.

Jeffs' influence is so strong, former church members say, that dozens of men he has excommunicated in the past two years -- an action that strips these men of their wives and children -- still contribute money to the church in the hope that he will reinstate them.

One reason FLDS members are able to provide substantial funds to Jeffs is that they live in houses on church-controlled land in Colorado City and Hildale and are free from paying mortgages.

And lately, FLDS residents of the homes have refused to pay property taxes. They are delinquent on $177,000 in 2005 property taxes owed to Washington County, Utah, and on $325,000 owed to Mohave County, Arizona.

Law enforcement authorities and sources in the community believe all this may be a reason Jeffs' followers do not seem to have a cash-flow problem, even as municipal financial troubles mount in Colorado City and Hildale.

On October 28, police intercepted an FLDS courier ferrying between $140,000 and $200,000 in cash and other valuables to Jeffs. Seth Jeffs, the prophet's younger brother, was arrested near Pueblo, Colorado, after sheriff's deputies discovered the cash, pre-paid credit cards and pre-paid cell phones in Seth Jeffs' vehicle.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty