Rumors swirled around the courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, last summer. Prosecutors had charged Warren Jeffs -- leader of the nation's most notorious polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- with sexually assaulting two underage girls in the group's Texas compound. For weeks, spectators whispered that the prosecutors possessed a vivid "rape tape" from 2006. When the audio recording was finally produced, however, no amount of preparation could buffer the shock.
Photographs projected on an enormous courtroom screen showed a freckle-faced, 12-year-old redhead, bundled head-to-toe in the trademark FLDS pioneer-style dress and caught in an awkwardly posed embrace with her 6-foot-4-inch, 50-year-old "husband." With her braids, she resembled the pre-teen heroine of the Pippi Longstocking books and movies. The jurors stared at the images, openly dreading what they were about to hear. Prosecutors handled the recording gingerly, as if they feared to touch it.
The sound quality was poor, but the packed courtroom hung on every word. Jeffs' voice drifted down from ceiling speakers like curling smoke. The FLDS "prophet" both threatened and reassured the girl, mumbling prayers that enjoined her to joyfully perform God's will. In the courtroom, hands involuntarily flew up to cover mouths as it became clear that the girl had been restrained on a sort of temple altar bed, while several of Jeffs' adult "wives" stood by to assist him in case the child panicked. Five minutes into the recording, Jeffs' droning prayers were accompanied by the sound of rustling clothing. Then came a rhythmic heavy breathing that no adult could misunderstand; it went on and on. At one point, Jeffs, panting, asked the girl if she "liked it." She answered in a small, squeaky voice: "I'm OK, sir."
Fifteen excruciating minutes later, several jurors were in tears; others gripped their chairs in white-knuckled disbelief. The jury sentenced Jeffs to life in a Texas prison, adding another 20 years as a kind of exclamation point. That day, it seemed like the head had been cut off the FLDS snake.
Yet since Jeffs' conviction last August, FLDS leaders have continued many of their extreme practices -- especially in the sect's longtime headquarters on the Utah-Arizona border, called "Short Creek," the local nickname for the neighboring towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. For more than a decade, the Short Creek community had been roiled by accusations of systematic child abuse, rape, incest and massive fraud. Although those crimes seem less common now, bizarre allegations continue: involuntary "reassignments" of women to new husbands, the intimidation of children, book burnings, assaults and kidnappings by "God squads" composed of religious vigilantes and Short Creek's state-certified police force, and so on.
And following a well-established pattern, most authorities in Utah, the state with the longest relationship with the sect, have responded with tolerance rather than prosecutions. Arizona's stance is only slightly tougher. Neither state is anywhere near as aggressive as Texas, whose lawmen took on the FLDS bigtime. The questions are impossible to avoid: How has Utah and Arizona's cultural acceptance of the illegal practice of polygamy created a habitat for the much more serious crimes of the most extreme polygamists? And will it ever be possible to dismantle this sect, or any others like it that might arise in its wake, unless those two states finally crack down?
In February 2010, a beautifully illustrated cover story in National Geographic magazine profiled the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Short Creek. The polygamist families were shown in a romanticized, golden light: the wives in old-fashioned prairie dresses, the healthy-looking children frolicking. Few photos showed the men in charge, and any mention of crimes or court battles was outweighed by positive spin. People magazine had treated the sect similarly in a 2009 cover story. TV viewers nationwide enjoyed Big Love -- a humorous HBO series about a polygamist family in a Salt Lake City suburb that ran from 2006 to 2011. A reality-TV show called Sister Wives -- which chronicled the lives of Nehi, Utah, polygamist Kody Brown, his four wives and their 17 children -- has also been popular since its 2010 debut; recently that group moved to Nevada, but they're still doing their thing.
Evangelical Christian groups across the country, and the Salt Lake City-headquartered Mormon Church, are waging a fierce political war against another unconventional form of marriage -- pushing states to ban gay marriage and even urging constitutional amendments against it. They don't, however, have much to say about polygamy.
The most widely accepted estimate -- made by Kathryn Daynes, a Brigham Young University professor, and other experts -- is that the U.S. has between 30,000 and 50,000 polygamists. Most live in Utah, where the general attitude toward polygamy stems from the Mormon Church, whose formal name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS. That church's founder, Joseph Smith, had 27 known wives and many overs, some reportedly as young as 13, when he inspired the church's rapid initial growth in the early 1800s in the Midwest. After Smith was murdered by an Illinois mob in 1844, his successor, Brigham Young, escaped U.S. laws by moving the Mormon Church's headquarters to the Salt Lake Valley, which at that time belonged to Mexico. Young established a powerful theocracy he called "Deseret," and later became the first governor of the federally recognized Utah Territory. He took more than 50 wives and proclaimed that "any man who denied plural marriage was damned."