A New Prophet for the Polygamists?

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Douglas C. Pizac / AFP / Getty

Former Leader of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Warren Jeffs

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But so far, it has not been destablizing enough to dethrone him. None of the men mentioned as potential Prophets compare in stature, influence and charisma to Warren Jeffs. Even as he awaits another criminal trial in Kingman, Arizona, as an accomplice to child abuse, the lanky, long-faced 52-year-old with the wide-eyed, almost vacant gaze continues to hold sway over his outlaw community. The evidence was clear in Eldorado. When Texas officials searched the ranch, which was built on instruction from Jeffs, they found his portrait hanging everywhere. When child protective services caseworkers looked at the Books of Mormon clasped in the hands of FLDS children they found his photograph pasted inside. At his September, 2007 trial in St. George, Utah, young women dressed in the FLDS prim, prarie-style fashions testified, while casting coy smiles Jeffs' way, that they listened to Uncle Warren's teachings on their I-pods.

It has been that way since Jeffs assumed the leadership and the title Prophet in 2002 from his father, the 92-year-old Rulon Jeffs. Previous "Prophets" had emerged from among the so-called worthy men who led the FLDS, but with Warren Jeffs the leadership passed from father to son. The community soon found Warren was a strict enforcer of teaching, expelling members, confiscating property and reassigning wives — he took his father's 22 wives as his own. Named to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, he traveled with bodyguards who delivered his exile messages and helped him, for a while, to evade capture.

But what of the taped January 2007 recantation of Prophethood? It was widely rejected by the FLDS, which saw it as provoked by duress. It came as he was held for trial in the Purgatory Jail in St. George, Utah; law enforcement reported he developed physical weakness from fasting, had ulcers on his knees from prolonged praying and even attempted suicide. In the phone conversation with Bishop William E. Jessop (and taped by prison authorities), Jeffs said that the Lord "has shown me I have not held the priesthood since I was 20 years old, having been immoral with a sister and a daughter." Jeffs' lawyers and his brother, Nephi, declared the renunciations were not true and reflected a mental breakdown. Jeffs has declined to elaborate on that confession of incest and later recordings have Jeffs denying them. More on the subject may be forthcoming, however, as Texas authorities examine DNA samples from Jeffs and others in their ongoing criminal investigation. An Eldorado grand jury is set to reconvene on July 22.

And so, in spite of himself, Jeffs remains the Prophet. Brower and other sources believe there may be an invisible, internal struggle under way but the private investigator says Jeffs is likely to remain in that position until his death. Resignation "would go against their beliefs," Brower says. Critics say the FLDS leadership structure is much like the Mafia. "Just like the Mafia bosses, he will run it from jail," Hamilton says.

The Mafia analogy may play out in other ways. Following the raid on the YFZ Ranch, the FBI executed a search warrant and removed several boxes of papers and materials. Earlier this month, a summit was held by Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Texas law enforcement officials along with representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice and the IRS. Hamilton of Yeshiva University says she expects federal authorities may develop racketeering charges against the FLDS leadership using federal RICO laws. "There's reason to hope after that summit meeting," she says.

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