Polygamist leader off to prison
November 21, 2007 - 10:00 pm
ST. GEORGE, Utah — A judge sentenced a polygamous-sect leader Tuesday to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison for his role in the arranged marriage of teenage cousins.
Warren Jeffs, 51, was convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. It will be up to the Utah parole board to decide how long he actually stays behind bars.
As the verdict was read, Jeffs was stoic, as he was throughout the trial. His attorney, Wally Bugden, asked the judge for concurrent sentences but lost the argument.
"This was all about religion," Bugden said outside court. "The foundation of this case was the prosecution of Mr. Jeffs because of placement marriage."
Jeffs is head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members practice polygamy in arranged marriages that have often involved placing girls with older men. Most FLDS members live in the twin communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., about 350 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
Washington County prosecutors said Jeffs enticed Elissa Wall into marriage and sex against her will by telling her that the relationship was commanded by God and that any refusal would place her salvation at risk.
Jurors said Wall’s age was a major factor in their decision. Under Utah law, a 14-year-old can consent to sex in some circumstances. But it is not considered consensual if a person younger than 18 is enticed by someone at least three years older.
Wall, now 21, testified that Jeffs failed to help her when she protested the marriage and when she later asked for a divorce because she was uncomfortable having sex with Allen Steed.
Steed, now 26, told a different version of events. He said Wall initiated sex and denied that she had cried during their wedding ceremony.
Prosecutor Ryan Shaum urged the judge to send a message to all religious leaders that they can’t hide behind their position and say, "hey, I’m just doing my job."
Bugden said arranging the relationship and encouraging the couple to stay together through difficult times "does not constitute accomplice to rape."
"It’s just an unjust result and doesn’t add up," he said.
As a victim in the case, Wall had the right to receive $5,000 from Jeffs as restitution, but she declined Tuesday. Prior to the trial, she had received more than $16,000 from a separate state fund.
"My restitution is knowing that I spoke the truth and that you and the justice system have done your job," she told state Judge James Shumate.
The Utah parole board’s first opportunity to review Jeffs’ case comes in 2010, although it could decide to wait longer. The average for Utahans convicted of rape or other first-degree felony sex offenses is seven years, said Jim Hatch, a state parole board spokesman.
Weeks after the Sept. 25 verdict, the judge unsealed court documents that disclosed a suicide attempt by Jeffs in jail. He apparently attempted to hang himself in January, months before trial. Authorities have declined to discuss the events, although Jeffs was taken to a hospital for just a few hours.
The documents also included selected jail transcripts of phone calls and visits between Jeffs and members of his church. Although he has been president, or prophet, since 2002, following the death of his father, Rulon, Jeffs said in jail that he had not been worthy of the "priesthood" for decades.
"I was immoral with a sister and a daughter when I was younger, so the Lord showed me I’m one of the most wicked men on the face of the Earth since father Adam’s time," Jeffs said.
He never elaborated on the immoral acts.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who allege sexual abuse, but Wall has made several public statements about the case using her maiden name. Citing safety concerns, she and her attorneys have declined to disclose her current legal name. Wall was granted an FLDS divorce by Jeffs after she became pregnant with another man’s child; she left the faith and is married.
Steed was charged with rape the day after Jeffs’ conviction. His case is pending.
Jeffs faces similar criminal charges in Arizona.
The mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, renounced polygamy more than a century ago, excommunicates members who engage in the practice and disavows any connection with the FLDS church.RELATED STORY: Arizona authorities ready for Jeffs’ trial in Kingman