July 26th, 2011
03:07 PM ET
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Gary Tuchman explores the latest developments in the saga of polygamist Warren Jeffs, the jailed leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a special report on tonight’s “AC 360” and for CNN Presents, airing Sunday, July 31, at 10 p.m. ET.
By David Fitzpatrick, CNN
El Dorado, Texas (CNN) - Fundamentalist Mormon leader Warren Jeffs has been held in a tiny jail in this west Texas town for roughly three years. According to his jailers, he has spent his time doing one thing above all else: talking on the phone..
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran told CNN that in one month, Jeffs has spent roughly $3,000 on phone cards.
And while Jeffs was recently held in another Texas jail roughly 50 miles away, he spent close to $10,000 in phone cards in three months.
Reagan County Sheriff James Garner, who oversees that jail, told CNN that no inmate there has ever spent that much money on phone cards.
Authorities say Jeffs has received money from loyal followers and that he uses much of it to buy phone time to deliver lengthy sermons to acolytes in Texas, Utah and Arizona.
Some Jeffs experts say the calls are proof that he’s running his church from behind bars.
And officially, Jeffs still leads the breakaway sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), which firmly believes in polygamy.
Leaders of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have repeatedly disavowed Jeffs and say his group of roughly 10,000 followers in no way represents their religion.
The official LDS church banned polygamy more than a century ago.
Jury selection for Jeff’s sexual assault trial began in Texas on Monday. He is charged with two counts of sexual assault on a child and one count of bigamy.
Jeffs has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The Texas accusations arise mainly from a raid conducted by the Texas Rangers on an FLDS ranch a few miles from El Dorado. Authorities took hundreds of children away from the ranch for over two months before allowing them to return.
Jeffs’ lawyer, Jeff Kearney, declined to answer any of CNN’s questions about his client.
Jeffs was tried in St. George, Utah, after his arrest in 2006.
He was found guilty on two charges of being an accomplice to rape, but the conviction was overturned by an appellate court on a technicality. Jury instructions were found to have been faulty.
Utah prosecutors elected not to re-try the case but Jeffs was arrested by Texas authorities.
In all, he has been in four different jails - in Nevada, Utah and Texas - for more than five years.
Now, even some once-trusted aides of Warren Jeffs say he has betrayed his church’s principles by openly boasting of relations with girls as young as 12 or 13.
“He’s said he is a very wicked man and he’s confessed to doing some very terrible things, including molesting his daughter and sister and others,” said Willie E. Jessop, a former Jeffs associate, referring to Jeffs diaries that were admitted as evidence in his Utah trial. “I think his own words describe himself more than I would care to characterize it.”
In 2008, when the Texas Rangers raided the FLDS ranch, called the Yearning for Zion Ranch, Jessop was close to Jeffs. Jessop even opened the gates of the ranch to journalists, giving them tours to show that nothing “bad” was happening there, as he put it.
But after seeing Jeffs' diaries, Jessop tells CNN's Gary Tuchman that “his conduct will never be sanctioned by me.” Jessop showed CNN two still photographs of Jeffs kissing very young girls.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in my church that will ever sanction what he has done,” Jessop says. “It’s just a matter of time until they come to terms and figure out how to cope with what he has done.”
But in Colorado City, Arizona, an FLDS stronghold, support for Jeffs still seems strong. A few residents told CNN they had become fed up with Jeffs, but many others voiced full-throated support.
Especially striking were remarks made by an 18-year-old woman who refused to give her name but who told CNN that Jeffs meant “everything” to her.
She said she wasn’t married yet but hoped to be in the near future. And when asked if she wanted to have so-called sister wives - the term used to describe women in polygamous marriages - she said yes.
“How many sister wives would be perfect?” CNN’s Tuchman asked.
“As many as I get,” she replied.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.