|Searches for polygamist sect leader crisscrossed U.S.|
By Jennifer Dobner|
The Associated Press
KUTV Channel 2
HURRICANE, Utah For nearly two years now, one question has nagged at Utah private investigator Sam Brower: Where’s Warren?
Brower, 53, has crisscrossed the country looking for Warren Jeffs, the 50-year-old leader of the polygamy-practicing Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Brower works for attorneys who represent a group of disenfranchised young men, known as the "Lost Boys," who claim they were tossed out of the sect or abused by Jeffs.
"I’ve been all over the country – Canada, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Florida," Brower said. "I’ve been everywhere."
Jeffs was arrested last week during a traffic stop by the Nevada Highway Patrol on federal warrants for evading prosecution.
Jeffs had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since May and was sought by Utah and Arizona on felony charges related to arranging marriages between teenage girls and much older men.
He’s now being held without bail in the Purgatory Correctional Facility here, pending a Utah trial on two felony counts of rape as an accomplice filed by Washington County prosecutors. A preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 19. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
"We don’t really have any idea right now where’s he’s been," Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith said.
What is known is that Jeffs had the resources – in money, equipment and loyalty – to stay hidden for a long time.
Jeffs’ 10,000 followers were asked months ago to up their cash tithing by more than $1,000. And in 2004 and early 2005, church-owned properties were quietly sold for top dollar. The money was likely used to fuel Jeffs’ life on the lam and build an 80-foot-high church temple in Texas, Brower and others say.
Inside the 2007 Cadillac Escalade in which Jeffs was riding when arrested, authorities found $54,000 cash, 15 cell phones, portable radios, three wigs, sunglasses, four laptops, a GPS device, a police scanner and gift cards totaling $10,000. There was also a list of safe houses and people willing to offer him safe harbor, the FBI said.
It all indicates Jeffs was acting strategically to avoid capture, said Tim Childs, a former FBI agent from St. George who retired in 2002 after 31 years with the agency.
"I think he was calculating," said Childs. "There’s probably a similarity between Jeffs and some of the organized crime families I’ve investigated back East. They’re watching, they’ve always got protectors. They’ve got their bodyguards and their henchmen, but they’re not leaving their neighborhoods."
That fits with rumors that Jeffs has been traveling in a convoy of SUVs between the church’s base in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and enclaves in Bountiful, British Columbia; Mancos, Colo.; Pringle, S.D., and Eldorado, Texas. He’s known to arrive under cover of night to meet with other church leaders and perform "spiritual marriage" ceremonies for members, Brower said.
On highways and state roads, the loop from Hildale, through Texas and the West on into Canada and back is roughly 4,929 miles – and a trip Jeffs and his protective loyalists may have made dozens of times, Brower said.
In July, Seth Steed Jeffs was sentenced to three years’ probation in federal court in Denver for harboring his then-fugitive brother. Seth Jeffs, a computer programmer, was arrested in October after a traffic stop in southern Colorado’s Pueblo County. During the stop, authorities found nearly $142,000 in cash, about $7,000 worth of prepaid debit and cell phone cards and his brother’s personal records.
Gary Engels, an investigator with Arizona’s Mohave County attorney’s office who tracked Jeffs for years, said he thought Jeffs might have been in Nevada picking up the money before he was arrested.
"I have no doubt they had couriers running money to him," Engels said of Jeffs’ followers.
A number of FLDS members have also moved their businesses and families to southern Nevada over the past year.
"There’s probably places we don’t even know about yet that he could hole up," Smith said.
Tracking Jeffs’ has been complicated by the mistrustful nature of the insular FLDS community, which negotiates a careful relationship with outsiders that usually doesn’t include sharing information with police.
"Gathering intelligence through that community is not like infiltrating an outlaw biker gang where somebody can grow their hair long and grow a beard and be accepted into the culture. It just doesn’t happen," said Smith. "One of the things we’ve learned in the past was that anybody that had been known to talk with law enforcement and media were booted from the community. So people were scared."
A few risked funneling information, mostly to Brower and Engels.
Jeffs bolted from public view in 2004 after the "Lost Boys" filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the church’s $100 million property trust. That was followed by a lawsuit from a Jeffs’ nephew, Brent Jeffs, who claims Warren Jeffs molested him as child in a Salt Lake City residence.
In 2005, Mohave County, Ariz., prosecutors filed felony charges against Jeffs, accusing him of arranging a marriage between a teenage girl and an older man. He’ll face those charges after being prosecuted in Utah.
Childs said Jeffs’ access to money and a cadre of protectors make him different from the typical fugitive, who often struggles hand-to-mouth trying to stay ahead of the law.
Why Jeffs chose to run is as interesting a question as where he’s been, Childs said.
"We wonder what his real motive is. Was he really trying to stay hidden?" Childs said. "I’ve seen fraud cases, where people preach something one way but don’t invest their own money. He may have been playing the game. Preaching the role and living the lifestyle as a truly believing member of the religion. Or it may have been that all the time ... he was just keeping up a persona."
Originally published September 7, 2006
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