The Vile History of Abuse Exposed by Polygamist Leader's Trial

Following his conviction, Warren Jeffs now faces a life sentence

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Warren Jeffs, the polygamist leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was convicted this week on two counts of sexual assault on a child. He spent years evading arrest, according the Associated Press, eventually making the FBI's Ten Most-Wanted List before his capture in 2006. His sentencing hearing began on Friday, following a trial during which he largely represented himself after firing several attorneys in the months preceeding.

For those who unfamiliar with the case of Jeffs, the details are gruesome. Jeffs, who had 78 wives in addition to his legal spouse, 24 of whom were under the age of 17, was convicted of the rape of two young followers, aged 12 and 14. The girls had grown up at Jeffs' Yearning for Zion ranch, according to authorities. The AP reports that as a prophet of his polygamist sect -- which has more than 10,000 members nationwide -- Jeffs "documented everything he did, keeping track of every marriage he performed, every young woman he wed, even recording his intimate moments." Many of those records were seized in a 2008 raid on a ranch his church operates near Eldorado, Texas, according to CNN. Items seized included "a 20-minute audiotape that began and ended with a man saying a prayer" that prosecutors alleged was the recording "of Jeffs' sexual assault of a then-12-year-old girl in the presence of three other 'wives.'" Ultimately, these records were used to secure the conviction. The jury deliberation lasted 3 1/2 hours.

The stories that emerged, and continue to emerge, over the course of the trial are even more depraved. CNN reports that Jeffs' nephew told jurors that his uncle raped him when he was 5 years old. His niece gave testimony in which she described an incident that allegedly occurred between her and Jeffs when she was 7 years old. Other members of the sect gave additional details of the lifestyle, such as former member Ezra Draper, who testified Saturday that Jeffs banned "parades, dances, music, and even the color red."

Jeffs could be sentenced to five years to life on one one charge of sexual assault, and two to 20 years for the other charge. In total, his sentence could be up to 119 years to life in prison. As the sentencing hearing began on Friday, Jeffs walked out in protest after reading a statement where he said was from God, and promised a "whirlwind of judgment" on the world if God's "humble servant" wasn't set free, CNN reports. Jeffs was placed in a room near the court, and counsel was assigned to take over the sentencing process. He did not return, and the proceedings continued without him.

Cathy Scott, who covered the story of Jeffs' arrest for the New York Times, blogged at Forbes about the fate of the sect in light of the possible life sentence: "It’s going to be tough for his church, with many of the elders in prison and Jeffs sent away for life, to survive. There is no heir apparent to replace Jeff. No new 'prophet' has arisen to lay claim to Jeffs’ church and its flock. Hopefully, the girls and women who have been victimized for decades will begin their lives anew."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.