After years of state and federal investigations, it took a Texas jury a mere 3½ hours to convict racist cult leader Warren Jeffs on charges of sexually assaulting two child brides, aged 12 and 15. He is already imprisoned for an earlier conviction.
Jeffs presided over a religious empire as both president and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon breakaway sect over which he gained control when his father died in 2002.
While Jeffs is best known for marrying underage girls and arranging child marriages to older men in the sect, he also preached a virulent racism as well as hatred toward LGBT people. He taught his estimated 10,000 followers, for example, that “the black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth.” He described homosexuality as “the worst act you can do next to murder.”
A federal investigation into the sect and its compounds in Utah, Arizona, Texas and Canada led to Jeffs’ indictment and inclusion on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. After nearly two years on the run, he was arrested during a routine traffic stop in late 2006. In 2007, he was convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice based on his role in arranging the marriage of an unwilling 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life.
Jeffs and the FLDS came to even greater national attention after the raid of the sect’s 1,691-acre compound in rural Eldorado, Texas, in 2008. The raid was triggered by a phone call, purportedly from a teenage girl in the compound who claimed she was being physically and sexually abused by her 50-year-old husband. That call turned out to be a hoax. Authorities initially took custody of about 460 children from the Yearning for Zion ranch. Dozens of underage teenage girls taken from the ranch either had children or were pregnant. The raid opened a window into the sect’s practice of polygamy, its sexual abuse of children and its bizarre lifestyle and beliefs. The lasting image, broadcast for days on national TV, was of women and girls wearing old-fashioned prairie dresses.
The Intelligence Report revealed as early as 2005 the seedier details of FLDS practices and doctrine. In 1890, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) disavowed “plural marriage” (that is, polygamy) in order to gain statehood for Utah, although the church had long considered the practice necessary for salvation. The change in doctrine created a rift among its more traditionalist members and led to the creation of several splinter groups, including the FLDS. The FLDS further distanced itself from mainstream Mormonism when the mainstream LDS abandoned its prohibition against black men joining their lay priesthood.
When the raid took place in 2008, Jeffs reportedly had nearly 78 wives, 24 of whom were under the age of 17.
Jeffs ruled his sect with an iron fist, eliminating all traces of dissent. As reported in 2005, Jeffs excommunicated nearly 300 men for opposing his dictates, for refusing to take part in child marriages he arranged, or for being too much competition for wives to the older, more senior members. When families were cast out, they were considered apostates, unable to communicate with anyone inside the church, including family members, and were believed to be prevented from achieving salvation.
In his most recent trial, Jeffs served as his own lawyer. In his closing argument, he stood silently before the jury for 24 minutes before saying, “I am at peace,” and then standing silently again for two minutes before taking his seat.
The penalty phase of the trial began with Jeffs saying, “I am God. Send me thy word. Cease. Hear my warning as a full awakening.” He faces a maximum of 119 years in prison.
Deity or not, Jeffs will likely never see the outside world or his compound again. A former FLDS member has said that Jeffs’ brother will likely succeed him.