The "prophet" of a fundamentalist Mormon sect who encouraged his followers to practice polygamy, and is himself believed to have married more than 70 women, was convicted yesterday on two counts of being an accessory to rape after a court found he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin against her will.
The verdict handed down against Warren Jeffs, the gaunt one-time leader of a remote, other-worldly community of polygamists on the Arizona-Utah border, was hailed as a victory and a major turning point for hundreds of former sect members and their supporters who have been telling horror stories about life in the community for years.
Jeffs has been described as spreading ignorance and fear during his brief tenure as leader of the twin communities of Hilldale and Colorado City. His iron grip on the social mores of the towns provoked an unprecedented rebellion in 2004. He fled shortly afterwards, with the law in hot pursuit, and lived on the run for two years before being stopped in a new car full of cell phones and computers in the Nevada desert.
The 51-year-old religious leader blinked but otherwise showed no reaction as the verdict was handed down by the jury in St George, Utah.
The convictions carry a sentence of anywhere from five years to life but sentencing is likely to be deferred pending a new round of charges for which he is expected to face in Arizona.
The girl bringing the accusations, Elissa Wall, testified that Jeffs told her it was her religious duty to submit to her husband, and that he was impassive when she begged him not to make her marry her 19-year-old cousin, who already had a wife. Ms Wall told the court she wanted to die after the cousin first forced her to have sex.
Officially, the Mormon church and the state of Utah rejected polygamy in 1890, but sympathy for the practice, a central tenet of the Mormon religion's founder, Joseph Smith, has remained strong, making it difficult to prosecute polygamy cases until very recently.