PHOENIX (AP) — A key witness in a trial against two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah described Tuesday the elaborate steps the church and communities took to avoid outside law enforcement and help their leader while he was a fugitive, including using “burner” cellphones, encrypted radios and hidden all-terrain vehicles.
Willie Jessop served as a spokesman and head of security for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints before leaving the sect in 2011. He testified about a list of cloak-and-dagger efforts that church leaders and officials in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, undertook to evade authorities and help their fugitive prophet, Warren Jeffs.
Convinced the local cellphone tower was being monitored, they drove 40 miles from town to make calls. They collected disposable cellphones from around the U.S. and used encrypted radios.
Jessop said church officials received law enforcement training from former Secret Service members and even went to sniper training.
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Many of the efforts were designed to assist Jeffs while he was on the FBI’s most-wanted list in 2006, Jessop said. Jeffs was on the run from charges of arranging marriages between girls and older men.
When Jeffs was being moved to a new location, Jessop said he would fly to places around the country to serve as a decoy and throw law enforcement off the trail.
He also said church leaders positioned all-terrain vehicles in various locations as part of their escape plans. When federal and county authorities showed up to serve a subpoena, Jessop said he and Jeffs’ brother — a key church figure — motored away in an ATV that was stashed behind fake walls in a Colorado City building.
He said all of those efforts were made in cooperation with town officials — a central component in the trial before a jury in Phoenix.
Jeffs was captured during a 2006 traffic stop outside Las Vegas. Investigators found more than $50,000, cellphones, laptop computers, a police scanner and wigs inside the SUV in which he was traveling.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting one of his 24 underage brides. He is believed to rule the polygamous sect through letters and phone calls from prison.
Jessop also talked about how Jeffs communicates with his followers from behind bars, primarily through coded messages. And he said Jeffs’ wives showed up at visits wearing watches that had recording devices.
The U.S. Justice Department alleges Colorado City and Hildale serve as an enforcement arm of the polygamous sect. The government says the towns have discriminated against nonbelievers by denying them housing, water services and police protection.
The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn’t a motivating factor in their decisions.
Jessop told jurors that residents must have church approval to serve in government in the towns.
He said a turning point occurred in 2004 when 20 men were booted from the church. “It changed from a church to a cartel,” he said.
Lawyers for the towns pressed Jessop on why he remained in the church for seven more years.
Jessop said he turned against church leaders after Texas authorities played him an audio tape in which Jeffs raped a 12-year-old girl. Jessop said he later reviewed another recording in which Jeffs confessed to a rape.
Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton objected to Jessop’s testimony about the allegations against Jeffs.
“This is not the criminal trial of Warren Jeffs,” Hamilton said.
Outside court, Colorado City attorney Jeff Matura said: “The testimony about Warren Jeffs and his criminal conduct is heartbreaking, especially with respect to this treatment of children, but it’s not part of the allegations of this case.”