Cult leader accused of making underage girls marry

By Andrew Buncombe

WASHINGTON - Warren Jeffs, leader of a notorious polygamist cult and, until this week, one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, appeared in court yesterday, accused of arranging marriages between adults in his sect and underage girls.

Dressed in a blue jumpsuit and looking gaunt, Mr Jeffs, 50, stood in the court in Las Vegas, flanked by armed guards, as the charges against him were outlined.

He nodded when asked by Las Vegas Justice of the Peace, James Bixler, whether he agreed to be extradited to the state of Utah.

Justice Bixler outlined to Mr Jeffs the charges against him, which carry the possibility of life in prison.

Two prosecutors from the Washington County attorney's office in Utah were in the courtroom and said they intended to take Mr Jeffs to Utah immediately.

In June, he was indicted in Arizona on a charge of arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a married man, and taking flight to avoid prosecution.

He also faces similar charges in Utah.

Mr Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has been on the run for more than two years.

He was arrested on Monday when he was pulled over in a routine traffic check near Las Vegas.

Prosecutors hope the arrest of Mr Jeffs, a self-styled prophet, will break his hold on the estimated 10,000 members of his church and encourage them to speak out about the cult.

During previous attempts to prosecute polygamists within the sect, victims have faced pressure from family members to stay quiet.

The Associated Press reported this week that a sexual assault trial of another sect member was put on hold after the alleged victim, a woman married at 16, refused to testify against the alleged offender.

"They pretty much have to renounce their entire heritage to go against the prophet," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. "That has got to be hard to do."

According to details of an affidavit made public yesterday, one accuser said Mr Jeffs had performed a wedding ceremony despite her repeated objections.

After the girl continued to resist the man to whom she had been married for a month, Mr Jeffs ordered her to "give your mind, body and soul to your husband like you're supposed to".

He allegedly added: "Go back and do what he tells you to do."

But some former sect members are sceptical as to whether the arrest of Mr Jeffs by itself will alter his group's behaviour.

Flora Jessop said: "It's a matter of using the window of opportunity that we have to get resources, education, help to the women and children who do want out, releasing that stranglehold of fear that he has on their minds, enough to get them help."

Mr Jeffs took charge of the church - with communities on the Utah and Arizona border as well as in South Dakota and Texas - following the death of his father.

He is estimated to have anywhere up to 70 wives and as many as 60 children.

- INDEPENDENT

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