Small polygamous groups have existed in the southwestern US under the watchful yet fairly benign eye of authorities ever since a sect known as the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) separated itself from mainstream Mormonism in 1890.
That year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned "plural marriages," a move declared to be based on a "revelation" from God. The decision was also required for Utah to become a state.
Now, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs has been added to the FBI's list of "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives," a move that caps law enforcement's dramatic change of approach toward the polygamous group in recent years. The group's belief that men need more than one wife to reach heaven, which FLDS defenders argue is a matter of religious freedom and pluralism in the United States, is not the main catalyst for the tougher stance. Rather, it's the impact that the group's practices, law enforcement officials say, are having on the most vulnerable within the sect, particularly children and women.
When the FLDS under Mr. Jeffs (and his father before him) grew to some 10,000 followers in several southwestern communities with estimated assets of $110 million; when it became clear that government officials, school authorities, and police in those communities had become intertwined with the sect; when ex-members increasingly reported child and sexual abuse charges (mainly involving underage girls forced to marry older men); and when the sect began to use secluded compounds, state and federal authorities started to crack down more vigorously.
Several models from the 1990s concern them, according to experts who track such groups: "Freemen" holing themselves up - armed and with children present - for months in 1996 at an isolated Montana ranch; antigovernment radicals shooting it out with federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992; and scores of people, including many children, killed during a gunfight and conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.
"In many ways, Warren Jeffs reminds me of David Koresh," says Brian Levin, associate professor of criminal justice at California State University in San Bernardino and a specialist in extremist groups. Mr. Koresh was the leader of the Branch Davidians who was killed at the group's compound in 1993.
"We've always had unusual religious leaders in this country that end up being at odds with their [church] community or with the government," says Mr. Levin. "This just shows that although we're well into the 21st century, these reactionary, narcissistic, perverted figures just continue to pop up."
Specifically, Jeffs is charged in Utah and Arizona with sexual assault of underage girls and with arranging "spiritual" marriages for girls and older men. At weekend press conferences in Salt Lake City and Phoenix, FBI and state officials said Jeffs "is considered armed and dangerous and may be traveling with armed bodyguards." In the past, he has talked in apocalyptic terms about a violent end to the world, according to former members.
"The thing that makes it so hard to track a guy like this down is that he probably has a lot of cash, and like Osama bin Laden [who also is on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted list], he has people who totally buy into his position as a religious icon, and would guard him quite loyally," says Levin.
The FLDS is based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah; and Colorado City, Ariz. It also has compounds in Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and in British Columbia, Canada.
Among the more bizarre practices has been the banishment of young men from their communities, reportedly on the grounds of unacceptable behavior. But according to reports by former members, it's more likely this was done to make more younger women available to the older men.
As with Christian Identity and other hate-related philosophies tied to the Aryan Nations and the neo-Nazi Creativity Movement, Jeffs has preached racism as well. "The black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth," Jeffs has said as cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report."
It's a difficult situation for the Mormon Church, which states: "No members of the Church today can enter into polygamy without being excommunicated."
An editorial in the church-owned Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City earlier this year acknowledged that "the state's history, a conservative belief in free choice, and an unwillingness to stir up a hornet's nest in the national media have likely all contributed to the kid-glove approach lawmakers and law-enforcement officers have taken when dealing with polygamous communities."
But according to some medical experts, intermarriage in polygamous relationships has led to severe birth defects in an unusually high number of children. Citing forced marriages, the lack of proper education in polygamous communities, coercion, and economic blackmail, the newspaper said, "Those charged with safeguarding Utah's citizens will perhaps be able to step in, step up intervention and get to the bottom of a regional phenomenon that has bedeviled laymen and lawmakers for generations."
In some cases, that's already happening. A judge in Utah froze the assets, including homes, businesses, and property, of the FLDS-run trust. The Arizona Board of Education has ordered the takeover of the sect-run school district in Colorado City. The Utah Supreme Court has removed from the bench a part-time judge in Hildale, Utah, who has three wives. And the FBI has just raised the reward to $100,000 for information leading to Jeffs's arrest.