Jeffs Still Dominant Force Even After Conviction

Warren Jeffs may still control his sect from prison, former members say.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 1:31 PM

Sept. 27, 2007 — -- Though Warren Jeffs is facing up to life in prison, the fundamentalist Mormon leader will continue to control the lives of thousands of his followers, people familiar with the polygamist sect say.

Jeffs was convicted Tuesday of being an accessory to rape for coercing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin. The verdict set off speculation over what will happen to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints if he is given a lengthy prison term.

But, former members say Jeffs will probably still be revered as the prophet, the leader of the sect who is regarded as God's voice on Earth. They said they expect Jeffs, for the time being, to continue to be a dominant force in the lives of the estimated 10,000 sect members who live along the border of Utah and Arizona.

"For those who believe, he is a prophet anointed by God," said Dan Fischer, a former member who started a network to care for boys who were kicked out of the sect so older men could have multiple brides. "There is nothing that man can do to change that."

Fischer added, "Should he decide that someone should be ousted [from the sect], he can still pull that off from prison, just like a mafia boss can run the mob from jail."

The polygamist sect broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church 72 years ago; under its rules, the prophet can only be replaced when he dies, said Brenda Jensen, another former member. It's still possible, she said, that Jeffs could anoint a successor or that a splinter group could form.

In Jeffs' absence, it is thought that other senior members of the notoriously insular sect have taken day-to-day control of running the group. Among those members are Wendell Nielsen, believed to be Jeffs' closest confidant; Lyle Jeffs, Warren's brother; and William Jessop.

Several people told ABC News that some families have started putting Nielsen's picture up on their wall, next to photos of Jeffs, and that some have started listening to tape recordings of Nielsen's sermons.