Even jailed, accused of rape and incest, facing a raft of civil lawsuits and another criminal trial in Arizona, polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' presence looms large in this remote, hauntingly beautiful stretch of Utah desert.
He arrived at court Thursday morning in a county helicopter, wearing a bullet proof vest over his well-tailored black suit and silver tie. Outside the courthouse, heavily-armed members of the Washington County Sheriff's Department took up surveillance posts throughout the neighborhood - on street corners, high up on bluffs overlooking the city and barely disguised inside unmarked white pickup trucks in nearby parking lots.
But as opening arguments began in a trial in which Jeffs is accused of coercing a 14 year-old girl into having sex with her 19-year first cousin, it became apparent that the biggest threat to the self-proclaimed prophet of the 10,000 strong Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may be a shy, soft-spoken, young woman with purple nail polish and silver hoop earrings.
The prosecution's star witness, known in court papers as Jane Doe IV, testified only briefly Thursday, but opening arguments provided a preview of her story. The sect's longtime practice of arranged marriages between fertile young teenage girls and older men came to a head in 2001 when the woman, now 21, was allegedly instructed to wed her first cousin.
Jeffs' teachings glorify procreation as a gift to God, and the women in the sect are taught to serve God by bearing children, as many as one a year. He is charged with two counts of rape by accomplice, for allegedly coercing the girl into unwanted sexual encounters with the cousin, under the threat of losing her opportunity for salvation in the afterlife.
"Please Don't Make Me Do This"
When she learned of the marriage plan, Doe went straight to Jeffs and begged him to reconsider, saying that if she had to be married off so young, could it "at least [be] someone else,'' Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap told a courtroom packed evenly with reporters and devout followers of Jeffs.
"She did not want to be in the same room" with her older cousin, Belnap told jurors. "She did not want to hold his hand."
When Jeffs allegedly urged her to follow his directive, she told him "I feel like I'm too young,'' Belnap said, adding that Jeffs replied that "the Lord wants you to go through with this."
Belnap said the girl fled the room crying and demanded a meeting with Jeffs' father, Rulon Jeffs, who then led the sect but had fallen ill in his old age. Appealing to the elderly church leader, Belnap said she got on her knees and begged him "please don't make me do this. This is my first cousin'' and "my heart is telling me this is wrong for me."
But the marriage went forward as planned.
The prosecutor told of the young girl putting pajamas on over her clothing and pretending to be asleep while her new husband showered before entering the couple's marriage bed - a queen sized mattress in her family home with a baby-blue comforter that the girl's own parents had decorated with a heart design and left a plate of cookies on to "cheer her up" in her despair.
"As she cried and as she said 'please don't,' her new husband deflowered her, Belnap told jurors.
Utah's Age of Consent is 14
But Warren's defense team countered with a Power Point presentation, photos of the young girl smiling beside her new groom, and the seemingly powerful reminder to jurors that the state of Utah allows for 14-year old girls to legally consent to sex.
Defense attorney Tara Isaacson, a statuesque blonde Diane Sawyer-lookalike who stands 6'1 in her ubiquitous high heels, reminded jurors that the practice of polygamy was not on trial and that the core question in the case was whether Jane Doe IV "was really raped.''
Warren Jeffs "did not encourage [Doe] to have sex.
"He did not encourage her to have unwanted sex….Mr Jeffs and [Doe] never explicitly discussed sexual intercourse,'' Isaacson insisted, at one point walking over and resting her hand on Jeffs' shoulders as the defendant sat unmoving. "He counseled [Doe]. He counseled [her husband], 'make this marriage work. He never counseled her to submit to rape."
Isaacson acknowledged that the sect practices a "patriarchal culture where wives are obedient…but only if the husband is acting in righteousness. Rape of course would never be righteous."
She said Jeffs' role as leader of the community was to encourage marriage, not rape.
"What did Warren Jeffs have to do with what was going on her bedroom? Did he even know she was being forced to have sex against her will?"
"Pressure to marry is different from pressure to submit to rape."
She urged jurors to look beyond what she deemed negative portrayals of the sect in the media, though attempts to interview sect members outside the court were met with polite but consistent, disciplined silence.
"Treat Each Other Like Snakes"
At the heart of the case is the question of whether or not the teenaged girls in the sect have any real say in who they marry. Former sect members and historians have recounted stories of girls pre-emptively seeking church leaders' blessings in marrying their teen crushes. But it's a tactic that can backfire, because any attraction between teenaged girls and boys in the community is allegedly sharply discouraged.
"The term that was used was that [prior to marriage] boys should treat girls and girls should treat like snakes,'' Doe told prosecutors from the witness stand Thursday. "There was nothing permitted romantically." Punishment for unauthorized romantic infractions, she said, ranged from social ostracization to being deemed "unclean'' for even kissing a romantic interest.
But to hear it from the alleged victim, advanced sexual activity would have been clumsy and uninformed at best. She testified that no sexual educational whatsoever was offered in sect schools or at home, and young girls were assured that sex and its myriad complexities "would be taught to us by our husbands.''
During the defense's opening argument, attorney Isaacson quoted her client's teachings to his sect that "there is no force'' in the group's religious beliefs and that the spiritual substance of marriages by "celestial law" - as they are known among the FLDS followers - are rooted in a covenant between husband and wife and the faith of the participants that God has ordained their leaders with His true will.
Jeffs spoke of these covenants in audiotapes of his sermons played in court Thursday.
But some of the seven women and five men on the jury appeared concerned to hear a section of one sermon Jeffs gave to a home economics class full of fifth and sixth grade girls at the sect's Alta Academy grade school in November, 1997, in which he lauded the sect's system of arranged marriages.
"You don't have to worry about 'which man?' and 'do they like you' and all of the silliness that goes on in the world,'' he said, according to the tape played by prosecutors.
"It frees you completely from all the terrible mistakes that girls can make."
Testimony of alleged victim 'Jane Doe IV' resumes Friday morning.