Leader of B.C. sect flees in polygamy case

U.S. prosecutors have charged him with arranging a marriage between a teenaged girl and a married man

BY JANE ARMSTRONG

THURSDAY, JUNE 16, 2005 UPDATED AT 5:29 AM EDT

FROM THURSDAY'S GLOBE AND MAIL

 

Vancouver — The reclusive leader of a Utah-based sect that broke away from the Mormons -- and has a large colony in British Columbia -- is now a fugitive after U. S. prosecutors charged him with arranging a marriage between a teenaged girl and a married man.

 

The arrest warrant for Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has raised fears of a violent showdown between authorities and the volatile, 49-year-old leader reminiscent of the deadly 1993 standoff at Waco, Tex.

 

Until recently, Mr. Jeffs was thought to be at a gated compound in the tiny Texas town of Eldorado surrounded by hand-picked devotees. But Arizona prosecutors, who last week filed two felony sex­related charges, concede they don't know their suspect's whereabouts.

 

Mojave County attorney Matthew Smith even conceded Canada might be a hiding spot. "It's not beyond the realm of possibility."

 

"But I have not heard that," Mr. Smith said in a telephone interview. "The best guess for a lot of people is that he's in Texas."

 

The RCMP said U.S. officials have not contacted them, and that they have no reason to believe Mr. Jeffs is in Canada. Staff Sergeant John Ward said the Mounties would co-operate if the United States made an official request.

 

Mr. Jeffs is the spiritual head of a breakaway Mormon sect that practices polygamy, which is illegal in Canada and the United States.

 

The plural marriages are arranged between girls as young as 14 to men who are often far older.

 

The sect's headquarters are in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, twin towns straddling the state boundary. And there are smaller colonies in Texas, Mexico and Bountiful, B.C., where about 1,000 polygamists live in the mountain valley community near the Idaho border.

 

Bountiful, too, is the focus of a provincial investigation into allegations that girls are trafficked across the border to the U.S. communes in Utah and Arizona.

 

The B.C. probe is also looking at complaints that racism is taught at the provincially funded schools and plural wives say they are single mothers so that they can collect welfare.

 

No criminal charges have been laid against Bountiful leaders in Canada.

 

Mr. Jeffs travels frequently to Bountiful, where he yanked control of the B.C. colony from Winston Blackmore.

 

Jane Blackmore, who was married to Mr. Blackmore but eventually left the church and her husband, welcomed the charges.

 

It's estimated Mr. Blackmore has 25 so-called celestial wives and up to 100 children.

 

Ms. Blackmore's 24-year-old daughter, Susie, and her three young sons, are believed to be living in Mr. Jeffs' walled Texas compound because her husband, Ben Johnson, is among Mr. Jeffs' most loyal followers.

 

Ms. Blackmore hasn't been able to speak to her daughter for a year despite repeated efforts and complaints to Canadian and U.S. police.

 

Ms. Blackmore's inability to contact her daughter and grandchildren are typical of Mr. Jeffs's increasingly hard-line behaviour.

 

He's also been accused of expelling hundreds of young men from colonies in the United States and Canada.Ms. Blackmore said she won't feel at ease until authorities arrest Mr. Jeffs.

 

She, too, is worried about the potential for violence. Critics say Mr. Jeffs has grown increasingly paranoid in recent years, which fuelled his decision to build the compound in Eldorado.

 

"I feel the security there [at the Texas compound] will be more tight, rather than less tight," Ms. Blackmore said.

 

"I certainly don't know how to predict the outcome or know what may happen."

 

Yesterday, Schleicher County Sheriff Dave Doran said he visited the Eldorado compound and residents told him they don't know Mr. Jeffs' whereabouts but he does not believe them.

 

"They're not giving him up, but we're talking about it," he said. "We urged them if he would turn himself in, wherever that may be, it would be in the best interests of everyone involved."

 

Last Thursday, an Arizona grand jury indicted Mr. Jeffs on two counts of felony child sex abuse for his alleged role in planning and performing the marriage of a 16-year-old girl to a man who was already married.

 

If convicted, Mr. Jeffs could face a prison sentence of up to two years.

 

A warrant was also issued for the 28-year-old Colorado City, Ariz., man who allegedly married the girl.

 

The girl, who is now 19, was forced to appear before the grand jury after being subpoenaed to testify, said Mr. Smith, the Mojave County attorney.

Mr. Jeffs also faces two civil suits in Utah, one from young men expelled from colonies and another from a nephew who has accused him of sexual abuse.

 

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