This week's arrest of Warren Jeffs, head of America's largest polygamous group, is a law-enforcement coup, but it leaves wide open the question of whether his followers will persist in their illegal practices or rejoin mainstream society.
Federal and state authorities, elated by Mr. Jeffs's capture Monday during a traffic stop north of Las Vegas, expect the latter.
The fugitive's arrest is "the beginning of the end of ... the tyrannical rule of a small group of people over the practically 10,000 followers" of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard in a radio interview.
Extremist-group experts, though, caution that it's too early to predict the sect's demise. "Yes, you have an infrastructure that has been decapitated. But you also have thousands of really sincere believers, and they are not going to just disappear," says Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism and a criminal-justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino.
Most of the church's members live in the twin communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. But in recent years, the group began building a massive compound in Eldorado, Texas, and there appears to be a large exodus of devoted followers to this new area.
FLDS adherents call Jeffs "the prophet," but they consider him God on earth. Until his death, he remains their chosen one. That means Jeffs is not likely to relinquish his power – even if convicted and sent to prison. Officials believe he led the sect while on the run this year – and for the nearly four months he was on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list – from charges of arranging illegal marriages between underage girls and older men.
Even so, leading such a large group from behind bars would be trickier because of limited communications.
"His arrest could put some very serious cracks into a group like this," says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "FLDS followers may begin to see that Warren Jeffs was not the second Joseph Smith [the founder of the Mormon church], probably wasn't divine, and that he did some things that were immoral and unethical, not to mention illegal."
Cracks are already showing. A number of girls have broken away, claiming they were forcibly married and sexually abused, and boys allege they were banished from FLDS so that the older men could have more wives.
In addition, schisms exist between Jeffs supporters and other polygamist groups that have broken off from the FLDS. Jeffs's arrest may lead to further splintering, says Mr. Potok, who last year added the FLDS to the law center's hate-group list because of its racist teachings.
Divisions are not uncommon among extremist groups with strong leaders, he says. One example: The neo-Nazi National Alliance began to fall apart when its charismatic leader, William Pierce, died in 2002. Pierce worked 20 years to build a group that could survive him, says Potok. But there was not enough respect for the new leader, and the group – with one-seventh of its former members – is almost defunct.
Others say that, because the FLDS is much older than many extremist groups, it is more likely to persist. It has existed for more than a century after splitting from the mainstream Mormon faith, and was headed by Jeffs's father, Rulon Jeffs, before his death. Earlier, the FLDS was led by a small oligarchical council.
"Unlike previous leaders, Warren Jeffs controlled every aspect of the lives of his followers. But a lot of people believe in the basic teachings, so it probably has enough to survive," says Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League. The significance of Jeffs's arrest lies in the serious nature of the allegations against him, as well as how he was apprehended, he says. Many had worried violence would ensue if Jeffs were to be trapped in a building by police.