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At Jeffs' trial, an inside look at his church

Testimony depicts a culture in which teenagers don't flirt, iPods play devotionals and members are aware of how the outside world sees them.

September 23, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

ST GEORGE, UTAH — At age 17, Jennie Pipkin wanted to get married. Her father wanted her to finish high school. Four days after her graduation, he asked her to get him a Pepsi from the local store. She returned with the soda in one hand and a cordless phone in another.

It was time, she told him, to call Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs, the son of the prophet of Pipkin's polygamous sect, effectively ran the church and served as his father's spokesman. He asked the girl if she had someone in mind. She did -- the name of another teenager had come to her while praying, she told Jeffs. The next day, the two were married.

The roughly 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who live along the Utah-Arizona border do not talk to the media. They are trained to shun the outside world. For years, the only information about the group came from those who fled, many claiming sexual abuse, and from government officials who vowed to crack down on criminal activity.

The church does not believe the government's courts have sway over it. Still, its leader is on trial and its members -- including Pipkin, now 26 -- who shared the most intimate details of their marriages in open court last week, are in the eye of the court and a curious public.

Warren Jeffs, 51, who inherited the position of prophet when his father died in 2002, is charged with two counts of accomplice to rape for allegedly coercing a 14-year-old to marry her 19-year-old cousin. Jury deliberations began Friday.

Critics and former sect members have complained Jeffs ran the church with an iron fist, breaking up families if anyone questioned him, exiling boys from the religion if they watched movies or talked back. He has been sued for sexually abusing his nephew and for forcing young church members into marriages.

If convicted of the accomplice to rape charges, Jeffs could face life in prison.

The prosecution of the case and the defense presented by Jeffs have put members of the normally closed sect in the unique position of making public ordinary -- and in some cases very private -- details of their lives.

Those called to testify for the defense -- Pipkin and nine others -- paint a portrait of commitment to their faith, but also of life lived in a closed system.

It's one in which recordings of the teachings of Jeffs echo through cavernous homes filled with dozens of siblings. It is also one in which many of those children have iPods stocked with church devotionals. Under one roof, a husband can have multiple wives. Couples court each other after the wedding ceremony. Though wives must remain obedient to their husbands, they can still exert subtle control over them.

It's also a culture aware of how suspiciously it is viewed by the outside world.

Sam Barlow, the former town marshal of sect-run Colorado City, Ariz., told church members in 2002 that Utah and Arizona were trying to ban a key part of the religion -- arranged marriages of underage girls.

"They accuse us of being lewd and lascivious and that we enter into these marriages for the purpose of exploiting the young women and satisfying the physical urges of our body under the guise of religion," Barlow said in a recording played for jurors during the trial. He said that this interpretation was far from the truth.

The sect sees itself as a continuation of the Mormon Church, which outlawed polygamy in 1890 and has disavowed the group. Polygamy and marriage through divine revelation are central tenets of the sect's faith.

Because the prosecution argues that the religion and culture gave the accuser no option to refuse her husband's sexual advances, sect witnesses -- all of whom testified for the defense -- spent much of their time explaining their view of marriage and arguing that women have some freedom.

"I believe we have a God who looks down on us and decides who's going to get married -- this boy and this girl -- and tells his prophet," testified Allen Steed, now 26, whose arranged marriage to the 14-year-old sparked Jeffs' prosecution.

Male church members favor dark suits and ties, but Steed and other male witnesses have testified in buttoned-down shirts and dark pants. The female witnesses, however, dressed in their distinctive garb -- homemade full-length dresses, with their hair pinned up or tightly braided.

From a young age, they said, they were trained in correct behavior. Charlotte Jessop, now 23, remembered being gently scolded by Jeffs, then her principal at a church school. "I did get caught climbing trees," she said. "It's not exactly proper to climb trees."

Part of correct behavior is complete avoidance of the opposite sex before marriage. There is no dating or flirting between boys and girls. Occasionally teenagers glean some basic details of reproduction -- "We had animals," said one woman -- but most are uninformed until marriage.

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