A polygamous sect in a remote part of the US is under the spotlight after its reclusive leader was indicted on charges of arranging the marriage of an underage girl and a 28-year-old man who was already married.
Warren Jeffs, of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), has been charged by the authorities in Arizona with conspiring to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
He is already being sued by five so-called Lost Boys, who say they were banished from their community to lessen the competition for wives.
The 10,000-strong FLDS split from the Mormon Church more than a century ago after the latter renounced polygamy.
The sect dominates the towns of Colorado City, in Arizona, and Hildale, in Utah, less than a mile away.
Members believe a man must marry at least three wives in order to ascend to heaven.
Mr Jeffs, 49, who took over the leadership after his father Rulon died in 2002, has not been seen for more than a year.
Some believe he could be hiding at an FLDS compound near Eldorado in Texas.
The authorities hope the publicity surrounding the indictment, announced on Friday, will help them track him down.
“He’s going to be held accountable for the charges. That’s the bottom line,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. “This sends a message that Warren Jeffs is not above the law.”
If convicted, Mr Jeffs could be jailed for up to two years. The 28-year-old married man faces charges of sexual assault and sexual conduct with a minor.
It is not the only court action Warren Jeffs faces.
Last summer, five boys launched a legal action claiming they had been unfairly expelled from their community.
The authorities believe as many as 1,000 teenage boys have been forcibly separated from their families, faith and community – principally so elder members of the sect would have less competition for wives.
Gideon Barlow says he was banished from Colorado City a year ago for wearing short-sleeved t-shirts, listening to CDs and having a girlfriend.
He told the Los Angeles Times he attempted to see his mother on Mother’s Day but she told him to stay away, on the orders of the sect’s leaders.
“I couldn’t see how my mum would let them do what they did to me,” said Gideon, who believes he is one of 71 children born to the eight wives of his 73-year-old father.
The FLDS has in the past denied the boys were competition for wives, and said they were expelled for being delinquents who refused to obey their rules.
A Baltimore lawyer involved in the legal action, Joanne Suder, says the experience has left her clients emotionally and psychologically damaged.
“They are clearly trying to get rid of the competition. Warren Jeffs himself is reputed to have 70 wives,” she was quoted by the LA Times as saying.
“These kids are kicked out and lose the only world they ever knew. They leave without an education and can have no further contact with their family. It’s horrible.”
Polygamy is illegal in the US, but the authorities have reportedly been reluctant to confront the FLDS for fear of sparking a tragedy similar to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, which led to the deaths of around 80 members.
“From everything I’ve been able to discern about Warren Jeffs, he is someone who is capable of some very different things,” Jim Hill, an investigator in Utah’s attorney general’s office, told The Guardian newspaper.
“Whether that includes a mass suicide, I don’t know. But I worry about it all the time.”