End of the road for the high priest of group sex with minors

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The saga of Warren Jeffs' long-running trial shocked most of America – but many sects still hail him as a hero. Guy Adams reports

First, they were instructed to disrobe.

Then the women were given advice on how to keep their pubic hair neatly trimmed. Finally, Warren Jeffs informed them that their duties, as members of his private harem, thought to number more than 100 female members, of various ages, would henceforth include taking part in group sex sessions.

"You have to know how to be sexually excited and to help each other. And you have to be ready for the time I need your comfort. This is your mission. This is how you abide the law," he solemnly informed them. "I need more than one wife to be with me at a time. [For] The Lord has shown me that, in heaven, the gods are with quorums of women when they conceive children."

According to the prosecution at a trial in San Angelo, Texas, this week, not every member of the audience of this perverse sermon was a consenting adult. At least one of them was just 14 years old at the time of her "celestial" marriage. DNA evidence shows that Jeffs, who is 55, was the biological father of a child she gave birth to roughly nine months later.

On Thursday, after a bizarre and often shocking trial capped by three hours of deliberations by the jury, Jeffs was found guilty of two counts of sexually assaulting under-age girls, one of whom was aged 12.

An unapologetic and eccentric figure, who still claims the endorsement of God for his nefarious lifestyle, he now faces up to 119 years in prison.

The verdict didn't exactly surprise legal experts. Jeffs had sacked his entire legal team shortly before the case began, and conducted a defence which involved telling the judge it was "God's demand" that she should be removed. His closing argument involved standing silently in front of the jury for 30 straight minutes before declaring: "I am at peace."

While Jeffs didn't address any of the actual evidence of sex abuse against him, he did claim that the US constitution protected the customs of his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints [FLDS] which has roughly 10,000 members. He therefore refused to accept the court'' legitimacy, repeatedly informing its officers that they would end up burning in Hell.

To most of the watching world, Jeffs cut an eccentric and abhorrent figure as he attempted to invoke religion in defence of a lifestyle which revolved around systematic child rape. At least 24 of his wives were under age, according to prosecutors, who also believe he spirited away some $96m (£59m) in donations from his followers over the years.

But there is least one corner of America where Jeffs is still considered to be a brave and heroic figure.

In Colorado City, on the border of Utah and Arizona, where just over half of his church's members live, locals remain convinced that he is a living prophet in direct communication with a God who has explicitly endorsed plural marriage.

I visited the windswept town last year, when Jeffs was in custody, awaiting trial.

At first glance, it is little different from any number of rural outposts: large trucks drive down dusty streets, and produce grown on nearby fields is sold alongside processed junk food at a local co-op.

It even boasts some minor tourist attractions. There is a roadside diner called the "Merry Wives Café" and a shop where visitors may buy ice cream and cheese made from milk produced by the FLDS cattle herd.

In the centre of the town is a zoo; on the outskirts, a riverside picnic area where large families spend weekend afternoons.

The tradition of polygamy began with the mainstream Mormon Church, whose founder Joseph Smith decided that, to make it into heaven, a man needed at least three wives. But it was abandoned by the organisation in the late 19th century, after Smith's death, so Utah could be allowed to join the United States.

At the time, Mormon elders claimed to have experienced a "revelation" in which God told them to revert to "normal" marriages.

Today's Mormon Church, whose members include the Republican presidential front runners Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, vigorously condemns polygamy, and this week launched the Mormon Defense League, to counter what it calls widespread misperceptions about its social practices.

However, outside the mainstream, some of the Church's original members have always refused to abandon polygamy. They formed conservative sects such as the FLDS, in remote regions of Utah, Arizona and Idaho, and carried on as they had before. Today, about 37,000 of them remain.

A tour of Colorado City, which is one of the largest remaining bastions of this tradition, is like stepping back in time. The men wear a uniform of jeans and check shirts. The women dress in "prairie outfits" of the type worn by early settlers in the American west, and boast extravagant hairstyles. When you ask for directions, men are generally hostile. Women look away, fearful of being seen speaking with an "outsider".

The town has its own hospital, paid for by the FLDS, and primarily devoted to maternity wards. Locals are deprived of outside news sources, since the Church controls local television and internet services (and so censors TV stations and websites it considers unsuitable) and bans mainstream newspapers from being distributed in local shops.

Then there are the houses. Since most of the male residents of Colorado City have several wives, and dozens of children, they live in huge, gated compounds. Senior figures in the FLDS, who can have up to 30 women in their harem, sometimes own entire blocks.

Generally, they surround their houses with high brick walls, and "keep out" signs which threaten to shoot intruders. Thanks to the FBI, we now have at least some idea what goes on behind those walls.

However. Jeffs, who inherited the leadership of the Church following the death of his father, Rulon, in 2002, devoted at least some of his time in charge to producing a series of written and tape-recorded records of FLDS culture.

They were discovered when the officers raided the Yearning For Zion compound on a remote ranch in Texas where Jeffs lived, along with roughly 7,000 followers, when he wasn't in Colorado city. Along with photographs of young wives annotated with notes such as "she is full of faith and sweetness", they found a21-minute tape recording of a 12-year-old girl being "married" to Jeffs.

The tape, which is punctuated with silences and the sound of heavy breathing, was apparently recorded in a bedroom at the ranch with several elder "sister wives" present as witnesses to the ceremony.

At one point during proceedings, he finishes a prayer before telling the girl: "Take your clothes off. Do it right now." She then appears to be crying.

"Just don't think about the pain, you're going to heaven," he says. "The world's view of sexual relations is selfish, the celestial view is not."

Later, he asks the girl: "What are you feeling?" She answers, quietly: "Very well, thank you."

Like so many atrocities committed under the veil of religious sanctity, the assault ends with its perpetrator thanking the almighty.

Just before the tape runs out, Jeffs signs off with the words: "In Jesus Christ our lord, Amen."

Famous Polygamists

*Fundamentalist Mormon Tom Green was convicted of child rape in 2001 after it emerged that his first wife was 13 years old when she became pregnant with his child in 1986. Green was living with his five wives and 29 children in Utah when he was arrested after going on national TV to promote polygamy.

*Winston Blackmore, leader of a fundamentalist Mormon community in Canada, was charged with having 20 wives in 2009 – nine of whom were minors when they married. Blackmore admitted to having sex with 15-year-olds, but the trial failed on a technicality.

*Ervil LeBaron, late leader of a breakaway polygamist Mormon cult called the Church of the Lamb of God, was jailed in 1981 for the murder of a religious rival. He is believed to have ordered the deaths of at least 25 people, some of which were carried out by his many wives and children. LeBaron's daughter Jacqueline, last suspect in the murders ordered by Ervil, was captured last year.

Enjoli Liston

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