The Strange Legal Trip of Polygamist Warren Jeffs

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Warren Jeffs watches the proceedings during his trial on September 19, 2007 in St. George, Utah.

Five years ago, Warren Jeffs was charged with sex crimes resulting from the polygamous marriages he arranged for his followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Jeffs then began a circular journey through the jailhouses and courtrooms of the west. This week, the self-styled prophet awoke to the promise of a change of scenery — but not a change of fortune. An Arizona judge dismissed the original charges against Jeffs, the very charges that had catapulted him into national headlines. But the dismissal has only cleared the way for Texas authorities to get their hands on him to face even more serious charges. "Extradition proceedings against Warren Jeffs have commenced," Lauri Saathoff, a spokesperson for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told TIME.

Jeffs has already spent more time in an Arizona county jail cell than he would have spent in prison if found guilty of the original charges: arranging and performing marriages between two underage girls and their older male relatives, thus being an accomplice to sexual misconduct with minors. The prosecutor in the case said the two victims no longer wanted to pursue the charges, making a prosecution impractical. Jeffs' attorney, Mike Picarretta, hinted at "irregularities" and said the cases would have been dropped years ago had they involved someone less well-known than his client.

But he doesn't face imminent release. Arizona had put its charges on hold while Jeffs was prosecuted in Utah on similar charges. In September 2007 a Utah jury found him guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to rape by performing a marriage involving an underage girl. He was given two five-years-to-life terms, moved to Utah state prison and then back to Arizona to await trial on the charges in that state.

Now Texas wants him. State officials are not revealing when Jeffs, 54, will be moved, but Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan is under Arizona court orders to act speedily. The sheriff says he hopes Jeffs will be out of his jail by this week's end. "He's been a problem inmate since we had him," Sheahan told the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times. "Mr. Jeffs was a handful from day one with his self-inflicted hunger strikes."

Jeffs served as president and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of the Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints after his father, Rulon Jeffs, died in 2002. In June 2005, days after being indicted in Arizona on the charges of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor, Jeffs fled the Colorado City, Arizona, area, home to a large FLDS community. A warrant was issued for his arrest and he was placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Fourteen months later, he was arrested outside Las Vegas, Nevada, and began his journey from court to court and jail to jail.

Jeffs' defenders claim he is a victim of religious persecution. He has spent much of his time in jail talking about his faith, fasting and praying. Tall, slender, with a wide-eyed gaze that seems to compel allegiance among his FLDS followers, Jeffs is a calm presence in court, but his life behind bars has been more tumultuous. Ill from fasting, his knees bleeding and sore from prolonged prayer sessions, he has been hospitalized and force-fed several times. He has also been inconsistently penitent. "I am one of the most wicked men on the face of the earth since the days of Father Adam," Jeffs can be heard saying on a tape recorded by authorities at the Purgatory Jail in St. George, Utah. Still, Jeffs' attorneys are pledging to fight extradition and also have an appeal of the Utah case pending before the state supreme court. They also may seek a new trial based on recently uncovered evidence — now under investigation by the Utah Attorney General's Office — that some medical records in the trial may not have been original documents, but reconstructed ones. Jeffs' legal team says the Utah case must be resolved before their client is moved to Texas.

The ordeal also has been difficult for his alleged victims, says Roger Hoole, an attorney for Elissa Wall and Susie Barlow, former FLDS members and child brides. "They have been reviled. They are hated and they have been scapegoated" in the FLDS community, Hoole told TIME. The FLDS communities in northern Arizona and southern Utah have strong, deep roots to the region going back to the mid-19th century. Many families bear the same name — evidence of generations of intermarriage — and former FLDS members say communal wealth is used by the leadership to maintain power and punish. Witnesses have refused to testify in the cases against Jeffs. Texas prosecutors have sidestepped that problem by using genetic evidence and extensive church documents seized during an April, 2008 raid at the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas.

Jeffs was indicted in July, 2008, by a Schleicher County grand jury in Eldorado, Texas, home to the YFZ Ranch. The state authorities removed more than 400 children from the ranch, plus boxes of evidence, some of which purport to show Jeffs kissing child brides. He is facing charges of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and bigamy charges which could result in at least one life sentence. If extradited, he will join 12 other FLDS defendants charged with similar offenses. In a steady march beginning last October, five FLDS members have been convicted of felonies and received sentences ranging from seven to 75 years. A sixth trial is just getting under way in the small Eldorado courthouse and six more men await trail — seven if Jeffs finds himself in a West Texas jail.