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Tips trickle in after TV show on Jeffs

Published May 8, 2006 12:29 am

Manhunt: The airing of 'America's Most Wanted' led to a 'limited number' of calls to the FBI
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The national spotlight shined on Warren Jeffs on Saturday night.

And the result?

"America's Most Wanted" won't say how many tips it has received after an episode featuring the fugitive polygamous sect leader was aired Saturday on the popular crime show, but the FBI reported a "limited number" of calls to its Salt Lake City office.

Jeffs, wanted in Utah and Arizona on sex-abuse charges, was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted fugitives list Saturday, less than an hour before the show aired. CNN quickly reported the listing on its Web site - even a news site in India picked up the story.

Avery Mann, a spokesman for "America's Most Wanted," said in an e-mail the show's re-enactment of the Jeffs case was one of the longest it had ever aired, coming in at more than 15 minutes.

"Regrettably, AMW does not release information on numbers of tips or locations," he said.

The 50-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been wanted since June, when a Mohave, Ariz., grand jury indicted him on charges of sexual contact with a minor and conspiracy in the forced marriage of a teenage girl to a married 28-year-old man. Last month, prosecutors in Washington County, Utah, filed two counts of first-degree rape against Jeffs, saying he was an accomplice in the sexual assault of an underage girl.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., but also has enclaves in Eldorado, Texas; Mancos, Colo.; and Pringle, S.D. It adheres to the early teachings of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, including plural marriage. FLDS faithful consider Jeffs the sect's prophet and leader.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Patrick Kiernan said calls were received over the weekend at the Salt Lake City office concerning Jeffs, but he didn't have details about the tips. Those phoned in from Utah, Idaho and Montana would have been investigated by the Salt Lake City office; if there were tips from outside the region, they may have been forwarded to other FBI jurisdictions, Kiernan said.

Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith on Sunday again called on Jeffs to surrender. He said the FLDS leader's "safety is of the utmost concern" and promised Jeffs that "he does not have to worry about any physical violence. We're not going to allow it to happen."

The FBI and "America's Most Wanted" hadn't contacted Smith as of Sunday, but he said communication between local, state and federal agencies has been good.

At Saturday's FBI news conference, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard requested a federal task force be formed to hunt Jeffs. Smith said Sunday that a task force is not necessary.

"I think, at this time, we've got some good intelligence," Smith said. "I think we're going to find him. . . . I would personally rather see us sit tight and see what happens."

Kiernan said he couldn't comment on the possibility of forming a task force. "That's something we could discuss. . . . I'm just not sure about a task force," he said.

A federal task force would be something new in the search for Jeffs, said Utah attorney general spokesman Paul Murphy, who favored the idea. There are areas that the IRS, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office could work together to investigate ongoing criminal allegations in Hildale and Colorado City, he said.

The reinvigorated hunt for Jeffs is the latest in a series of events that have put the spotlight on the FLDS. In January 2004, the leader expelled 21 men from the community, exposing what some outsiders said was instability in the church. Jeffs had cast out members in the months before and more expulsions followed after the January episode. One former follower refused to leave his home and won the right in court to remain.

The past two years brought more upheaval, including a series of legal actions.

In July 2004, Brent Jeffs filed suit accusing three of his uncles, including Warren Jeffs, of sexually assaulting him when he was a child. His suit also named the FLDS church as a defendant. A month later, a half dozen "lost boys" who say they were cast out of their homes in the Hildale-Colorado City community to reduce competition for wives sued the church and its officials, including Jeffs.

Then in August 2004, former FLDS member Shem Fischer added the church and Jeffs as defendants to a 2002 lawsuit claiming he was illegally fired from his job as a salesman at a Hildale cabinetry business because he no longer adhered to the faith.

And in December, a woman identified only as M.J. in court papers sued over her alleged forced plural marriage. Once again, Jeffs and the FLDS Church were named.

All four suits are pending.

Last year, the United Effort Plan, a trust that controls most of the property in Hildale and Colorado City, was put under the control of a court-appointed special fiduciary and its trustees were stripped of power. The action came after Jeffs and the church failed to respond to lawsuits, sparking fears that they would lose by default and put residents of the FLDS community in jeopardy of losing their homes to pay off a monetary award to the plaintiffs.

Other actions directed at the FLDS in 2005 include the state of Arizona taking control of the Colorado City school district and eight male members of the polygamous community other than Jeffs being charged with sex offenses for their alleged marriages to underage girls.

jbergreen@sltrib.com