The owners and most of the lunch crowd at the Merry Wives Café in Hildale, Utah, were excommunicated from his polygamous sect years ago. And Warren S. Jeffs, the man revered as the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), counsels his followers to shun all outsiders, even their more open-minded blood relatives who playfully named their new burger joint after their proud heritage of "plural marriage." Still, news that Jeffs, 51, had been convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old church member traveled quickly across the red-rock desert to this restaurant along the Utah-Arizona state line, unnerving even the most progressive of the extended polygamist community.
"This hatred for polygamists … I felt it ever since I was a child," says Charise Dutson, manager and part owner of the Merry Wives. Today Dutson is a member of Centennial Park, an Arizona group that split from the FLDS but continues to practice polygamy. Three teenagers who are part of Centennial Park call Jeffs a fraud with no direct line to God. The verdict, meanwhile, worries them all. Another owner of the café, a jovial man who asks not be named, adds, "I don't think we could ever get a fair trial in the state of Utah."
Utah's Washington County attorney, Brock Belnap, argued in court that claims of religious persecution were a smokescreen for Jeffs's crimes, saying, "You cannot hurt young people in the name of religion and think you'll escape the law." Now Jeffs faces a possible maximum sentence of life in prison and further trials in Arizona and in federal courts. Meanwhile, the two-week trial in St. George, Utah, was a discomfiting look under the covers of Jeffs's secretive sect, whose practices are said by many former members to have become increasingly austere and bizarre in recent years, under Jeffs's leadership.
The accuser, Elissa Wall, testified that she was 14 years old when Jeffs told her she must marry 19-year-old Allen Steed, a first cousin whom she disliked. According to church doctrine, Jeffs's matchmaking was divine revelation and her only path, as a woman, to heaven. To defy him meant facing the absolute darkness of apostasy. Wall sobbed through the ceremony Jeffs performed in 2001 in a Nevada motel room. He had to ask three times if she would agree to be Steed's wife, Wall told the court. Finally, prompted by her mother, Wall muttered, "OK, I do." Then she hid in the bathroom. A few weeks later, according to her account, Steed said it was time "to be a wife and do your duty." They consummated the marriage. He fell asleep. Then Wall swallowed two bottles of over-the-counter pain pills, which she vomited, she said. Later she told Jeffs she loathed her husband's touch and asked him to release her from the marriage. He refused and admonished her to give herself "mind, body and soul" to her husband, prosecutors said.
Steed was never charged in the case. He testified that it was actually his 14-year-old bride who initiated their first sexual encounter (not including the time he said he exposed himself to her in a park in an unsuccessful attempt to interest her in sex). Wall, like several other young women in her situation, eventually started an affair and became pregnant with another man's child, ensuring her immediate expulsion from the sect. Now she's 21, married to that man and the mother of two children.
Jeffs's attorneys declined to comment to the media during the trial or after the verdict. Defense counsel Walter Bugden told jurors in court that his client had not committed a crime. "His church, his religious beliefs is what's on trial here, and it's being dressed up as a rape," he said. Bugden said in court that the case against Jeffs was "the continuation of 165 years of intolerance for a people who engage in different cultural and religious practices." In the end the five man, three-woman jury concluded that Wall had been enticed into marrying Steed and could not legally give her consent, in part because of her fears of eternal damnation for defying the prophet's will. After the trial Wall said she has tender feelings for the FLDS members. "I pray they will find the strength to step back and reexamine what they have been led to believe," she said. "This is not about religion or a vendetta. It's simply about child abuse."
Wall's legal challenge was an astonishing act of courage by a young woman who defied the man thought to be God's prophet on earth, says Sara Hammon, a woman who fled a polygamist colony when she was 14 to avoid a similar fate. Hundreds of underage girls have been damaged by the doctrine of celestial "placement marriage" over the last century, says Hammon, one of 75 children of the founder of her former group. "But she is the first one who had the courage to speak up against it, the first one to take the prophet on in a court of law."
In 2005, Arizona investigators circumvented a shortage of women willing to testify by doing the math based on birth certificates and charging Jeffs and seven men from the group with sex crimes relating to underage marriages. (Some of the men were sent to jail.) Jeffs disappeared in June of that year and spent 15 months as a fugitive, sharing a place on the FBI's Most Wanted list with Osama bin Laden. The year before, his nephew had accused him and other church leaders of child abuse and sodomy. The nephew and others who sued Jeffs won a partial settlement of their case. Jeffs and the FLDS leadership were also accused of fleecing their flock, prompting Utah authorities to take control of a legal trust valued at more than $100 million that holds title to all the sect's homes and other property in the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona. "Our Prophet and the celestial law, the principle of revelation, are under attack," Jeffs told his followers in 2002, according to the prosecution.
The mainstream Mormon church rejected polygamy in 1890, amid Utah's bid for statehood. The fundamentalists who settled along the Utah-Arizona border continued with the tradition, though it cast them on the other side of the law. The land at the base of a stunning red cliff was an ideal place for their settlement, because they could dart across the state line to avoid the authorities. Today FLDS couples are often seen in St. George shopping for their large families at Costco, the women wearing their distinctive ankle-length pioneer dresses, hair always coiffed into a long braid, the men in dark suits.
Some St. George residents taunt them as "dirty plygs" or resent them for what the fundamentalists call "bleeding the beast": tax evasion and welfare fraud. Others respect them for being hardworking and honest laborers. Many in Utah have a live-and-let-live attitude toward polygamy, even some of Jeffs's fiercest detractors. But Deborah Ann Morris, 41, who describes herself as a devout member of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says, "Polygamy is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Because of their distorted beliefs, they are not living righteously." Elaine Tyler, president of the HOPE Organization, one of several advocacy groups that help young victims of polygamy who turn up in St. George, orphaned or on the run, says, "They're like little lost sheep." Tyler thought she'd never see Jeffs convicted. "I don't care if they practice polygamy. If they're consenting adults, that's their choice," she says. "Just don't go marrying off those little girls."
Jeffs assumed the mantle of prophet leader from his dying father. Even before he officially took over in 2002 he had consolidated his power over the FLDS sect in a series of purges. He banned the color red, sports and dogs. Some members smuggled their pets to animal shelters; the rest of the animals were shot. He encouraged his followers to build high fences around their homes. He confiscated all literature from the outside, even children's books, and banned outside television programs. Most shockingly, Jeffs started "reassigning" the wives and children of purged men to others in the community. Richard Holm, 54, lost his two wives and young children in just that way when Jeffs forced him from the group. "He didn't give a reason. He just said repent from afar," Holm said after emerging from the courtroom. "He abused and hurt a lot of people."
Now it is unclear what effect the criminal case might have on Jeffs and the FLDS community. With their Utah-Arizona border towns under siege, some followers have already moved to a new compound and temple at Yearning for Zion Ranch near El Dorado, Texas, as well as other colonies in South Dakota, Colorado and Canada. Those who remain in their desert homeland, where sandstorms frequently pummel their twin towns of sprawling unfinished homes, trailers and warehouses, refuse to comment. One woman in an ankle-length purple pioneer dress looked straight through a visitor as if she were invisible, ignored a question, climbed into the double cab of a diesel pickup in the grocery store parking lot, and drove away. Others politely declined to comment.
The legal investigations appear to have reduced the prevalence of underage marriages in the FLDS, says Gary Engels, a Mohave County, Arizona, investigator who has been tracking the group for years. But Holm, the polygamist pushed out of the group, says "those in power behind Warren still have a very tight grip. The majority of people will be in a continued state of captivity." Carolyn Jessop, who fled in 2003 with her eight children, calls the FLDS "a cult, a destructive cult." The only difference: "We were all born into it, so none of us have any reference to anything that's the norm." She described Jeffs as a cruel dictator who controlled his people through fear. "The longer he is locked away, the less he will be able to intimidate." It will be gradual, but eventually, she says, "more of the truth will come out and his power will diminish among the people." For now, Jeffs is said to still lead the church from his jail cell in the appropriately named town of Purgatory. His followers must reach their own verdict.