Trial of polygamist "prophet" to begin in Utah

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LOS ANGELES, Sep 11 (Reuters) The self-proclaimed ''prophet'' of a polygamous clan in an isolated desert enclave at the border of Utah and Arizona goes on trial this week in St George, Utah, accused of arranging a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her cousin.

Warren Jeffs, 51, is charged with two felony counts of being an accomplice to rape and could face life sentences for each charge. He has been in prison since his arrest in August 2006 after 15 months as a fugitive on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Most Wanted list and has pleaded not guilty.

The Jeffs trial is the long-awaited crux in authorities' efforts to control the 7,500-strong enclave of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona -- a dusty, red-rock area some 160 km northwest of the Grand Canyon.

For years, the group that holds to early tenets of the Mormon faith, including polygamy, existed virtually free of outside interference from authorities, although exiled or escaped members reported crimes such as widespread welfare and tax fraud, underage marriages and sexual abuse.

But some three years ago, Utah's attorney general convened a task force to uncover crimes within polygamous communities, including abuse of minors and other sex crimes. Although polygamy is banned under Utah law, authorities say prosecuting so-called plural marriages is impractical.

Jeff's accuser, known as Jane Doe, was 14-years-old at the time of the arranged marriage in 2001. She testified in a preliminary hearing that she protested the ''celestial marriage'' to her 19-year-old cousin to Jeffs and family members, but ultimately acquiesced under pressure. She came forward to authorities after leaving her husband.

'WICKED' OUTSIDE WORLD A secretive community that views outsiders with suspicion, the FLDS was strictly ruled by Jeffs, its president who took over after the death of his father, Rulon, in 2002.

The FLDS is a fundamentalist, break-away sect of the Mormon church and still holds to the early tenets of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, such as polygamy. The Mormon church renounced plural marriage around the turn of the 20th century when Utah was vying for statehood, but it remains a thorn in the side of church, which has strongly come down against the practice still held by up to 37,000 in the intermountain West.

The FLDS believes its prophet's power comes directly from God, and marriages are arranged after a ''revelation'' by him.

Women, who wear the long braids and dresses worn a century ago by the area's pioneers, are brought up to be submissive and taught the only way to reach heaven is through their husband.

Family trees are tangled by intermarriage, with unions between cousins or between young women and much older men common. According to authorities, a majority of residents in the twin communities receive food stamps or are on welfare -- fraud occurs when several of a polygamist's wives claim to be single mothers. The FLDS has controlled the communities' police force and local governments.

Described as a paranoid, manipulative leader who warned his faithful of the ''wicked'' outside world, Jeffs forbade television, the Internet, even after-school sports, and began exiling young male members of the community in 2004, reassigning their wives to other men.

Hundreds of male teenagers known as the ''Lost Boys,'' have been kicked out in what authorities have called attempts by Jeffs to reduce competition for wives.

Prosecution witnesses are expected to include the girl, members of her family, exiled male critics of Jeffs, and former wives. The defense has listed some 70 people as possible witnesses, most of whom carry the last names of some of the FLDS' most established polygamous family clans.

REUTERS SBC BST2122

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