SALT LAKE CITY – A woman reported to be one of jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' many wives has fled the insular community along the Utah-Arizona border, a move that could mean her excommunication from the group and severed ties from all friends and family.
Departures from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are rarely public given the closed society and Jeffs' prophet-like grip on community members who believe he speaks directly to God.
But a previous tip from a woman claiming to need help leaving the FLDS instigated a 2008 raid by authorities on a church compound in Eldorado, Texas. That eventually led to Jeffs' August conviction and life sentence on child sex abuse charges.
Media outlets including the Salt Lake Tribune report the woman who fled the church on Monday was one of Jeffs' nearly 70 wives. Authorities had not released the woman's identity and Washington County sheriff's Detective Nate Abbott said he didn't know whether she was married to Jeffs.
The 25-year-old woman fled a Colorado City home and sought help from former church spokesman Willie Jessop, Abbott said.
Jessop, who has denounced Jeffs, told The Associated Press he then contacted authorities, but he declined to provide details.
"She came to me under duress for some help," Jessop said Wednesday. "We've got her help. She's deciding what she wants to do and how we can help facilitate that. One hundred percent of the focus now is on whatever is in her best interests."
Officers from both the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the Colorado City Town Marshal's office responded to the "keep the peace" call, but there "was no confrontation," Abbott said.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap said his office will investigate the incident and will file criminal charges if warranted. He said investigators had not yet interviewed the woman.
Jeffs' sect, which has about 10,000 members, practices polygamy in arranged marriages that have sometimes involved underage girls. He has spent much of the last six years incarcerated in Utah, Arizona and Texas, but has continued to lead the church from behind bars.
Voluntarily leaving the devout, insular community has historically been difficult for FLDS members largely because it severs all ties with family and friends, and excommunicated men are often forced to leave behind their children and wives who are assigned to other men.
The 55-year-old Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for child sexual assault convictions after authorities used family and church records gathered during the 2008 raid to incriminate him. Authorities went to the FLDS Texas ranch when a domestic violence hotline received a call from a woman claiming to need help leaving the church after being abused. Authorities later said the woman did not appear to have any connection to the church, but the raid ensued regardless.