By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
When Nevada state police stopped a red Cadillac Escalade without visible license plates Monday night and asked one of its passengers for identification, he handed over a receipt for contact lenses.
Suspicions aroused, the troopers said, they asked to search the vehicle and found wigs, $54,000 in cash and mail addressed to "The Prophet."
So ended two years on the lam, and 114 days on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, for the nation's best-known polygamist, Warren Steed Jeffs. Yesterday he was in federal custody in Las Vegas, facing multiple charges of sexual crimes against minors, an FBI spokeswoman said.
Tall, lanky and clean-cut, Jeffs, 50, is believed to have dozens of wives and thousands of followers -- not to mention a television series, HBO's "Big Love," loosely modeled on the sect he heads. His ability to elude justice, together with the hit TV show and a national debate over the definition of marriage, have combined in the past year to dramatically raise the profile of polygamy in the United States.
Nine days before his arrest, about 300 children of polygamous relationships rallied in Salt Lake City in a rare public defense of "plural marriage."
Jeffs is known as the Prophet to an estimated 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which he inherited from his father, Rulon Jeffs, in 1998.
Their sect broke away when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, banned polygamy in 1890. Rulon Jeffs was excommunicated by the Mormon Church in 1941, and his son was never a member. Authorities say that both men routinely arranged marriages for underage girls with male followers.
The fundamentalist sect is notoriously secretive, but details about Rulon and Warren Jeffs's lifestyle emerged in 1999, when they sold a seven-acre, $1.9 million walled compound in Sandy, Utah, where they had lived with their wives and children since the early 1980s.
Women's bedrooms in Rulon Jeffs's main house were decorated with wallpaper saying "Keep Sweet No Matter What." Their doors were marked with red, yellow or green tags, depending on whether they were ovulating. The house had an industrial-size laundry. And there were signs of other practices shocking to Mormons: Apparently, they drank coffee and berry wine.
Loraine Sundquist, who bought the compound and is developing it into luxury condominiums, said yesterday that she remembers Jeffs as "quiet and soft-spoken," and all of his associates as friendly and polite.
"What struck me most is when one of them said to me, 'You know, we're really no different than your society. We're just honest about our affairs, and we take care of our babies and our girlfriends,' " she said.
The number of Americans who practice polygamy is unclear. A joint report by the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona put the figure at 20,000 to 40,000. Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy group, said that there are 37,000 Fundamentalist Mormons in the western United States, most of whom "profess a belief in polygamy but are not currently practicing it."
Vicky Prunty, who was in a polygamous marriage for three years and now heads an anti-polygamy group called Tapestry of Polygamy, said she believes there are closer to 100,000 Americans in secret plural marriages today, and she charged that the Mormon Church still winks at the practice.
Mike Otterson, spokesman for the Mormons, vigorously denied the allegation. "We don't countenance polygamy, and anybody in the church today who is found to be practicing polygamy will be excommunicated, which is the highest sanction we can apply," he said.