Warren Jeffs is a prophet without honor in the eyes of the Feds: leader of a polygamist offshoot of Mormonism (the church banned polygamy in 1890), he has now made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Missing from public view for two years, Jeffs has failed to answer state criminal charges stemming from marriages he allegedly performed between teenage girls and older men. As a result, the FBI has included him in the ranks of alleged murderers, mobsters—and Osama bin Laden.
Jeffs's sect, the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), isn't recognized by the Mormon Church. Until recently, law enforcement largely ignored polygamous groups like the FLDS. But now it is going after them for an assortment of alleged sexual and financial abuses. Last June, Jeffs was charged in Mohave County, Ariz., with a felony count of "sexual conduct with a minor" and a related conspiracy charge for his part in officiating a "celestial marriage" between a 16-year-old girl and a polygamous 28-year-old man. In April, Jeffs was charged in Washington County, Utah, with two felony counts of "rape as an accomplice," for allegedly performing another marriage that led to illegal sex between an underage girl and an older man. Jeffs hasn't responded to charges in either case, says Rodney Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has previously represented him and his church.
Officials think the prophet may be floating between safe houses at properties the sect owns throughout the West, as well as in Canada and Mexico. The last sure sighting came in April 2005, when Jeffs was photographed at the dedication of a new church compound in Eldorado, Texas. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard hopes the FBI listing, made on May 6, will "raise the urgency level" to find him. Jeffs disappeared from his church's desert enclave, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border, about the time his nephew Brent Jeffs filed a civil suit claiming his uncle repeatedly sodomized him in the late 1980s and allowed others to participate. "He said that it was helping me become a man, and it was God's will," Brent Jeffs, now 23, tells NEWSWEEK. "He said, 'If you don't do exactly what I say you will burn in hell'." According to Parker, Jeffs hasn't responded to his nephew's suit, filed two years ago in Salt Lake City.
Jeffs may be in hiding, but investigators think he still has great influence over his followers. Last month his brother Seth Jeffs pleaded guilty in federal court in Denver to one count of harboring or concealing a person from arrest—his brother. That case stemmed from a traffic stop last October near Pueblo, Colo., where Seth Jeffs and a man named Nathaniel Allred were found in a Ford Excursion with $142,000 in cash, seven prepaid cell phones and a collection jar decorated with Warren Jeffs's photo and a sign reading pennies for the prophet. Seth Jeffs, who'll be sentenced in July, refused to tell investigators anything about his brother's whereabouts. An FBI spokeswoman says the agency has received about 150 tips since Jeffs made the Ten Most Wanted list—thanks, no doubt, to a new $100,000 reward. For the person who finds the prophet, that's an awful lot of pennies.