PHOENIX (AP) — Jurors at a federal trial against two polygamous towns in Utah and Arizona heard testimony Monday about the influence that sect leader Warren Jeffs still wields over the communities from his Texas prison cell.
An FBI agent testified about letters in which local police officers pledged loyalty to Jeffs while he was on the run from charges of arranging marriages between girls and older men. A prison mailroom administrator described how Jeffs tried to send coded messages to his followers from prison.
The federal government offered the letters as proof of its allegations that Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, are serving as an enforcement arm of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect broke away from mainstream Mormonism when the latter disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
"I view Colorado City, Hildale and FLDS as one in the same," testified FBI Agent Robert Foster, who helped search for Jeffs when he was a fugitive during the mid-2000s.
The U.S. Justice Department alleges in a lawsuit that the towns discriminate 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.
On the stand, Foster said Colorado City officers claimed to have no information on Jeffs' whereabouts while he was a fugitive. A handful of the officers later were decertified, including one who refused to answer a grand jury's questions about Jeffs' whereabouts.
Attorneys for the towns have acknowledged past problems with the police department but pointed out that the officers who didn't cooperate in the search for Jeffs are no longer working in law enforcement. They say no officers have been decertified since then.
Some of the letters written to Jeffs were found during a 2005 traffic stop in Colorado of a vehicle carrying his younger brother, Seth Jeffs. Inside the vehicle, officers discovered $200,000 in cash, prepaid credit cards and a donation jar with Warren Jeffs' photo and a label saying, "Pennies for the Prophet." Authorities say the items were intended for Jeffs.
Some letters professing allegiance to Jeffs were written by then-Colorado City Mayor Richard Allred, other town officials and two police officers, including Fred J. Barlow, who was leader of the towns' police department.
"I want my work in the town government, as town clerk, to be an extension of priesthood," then-Colorado City Town Clerk Joseph Allred said to Jeffs in an October 2005 letter.
Colorado City attorney Jeff Matura repeatedly pointed out that Jeffs didn't respond to the letters in question.
Jeffs was captured during an August 2006 traffic stop outside Las Vegas. Investigators found more than $50,000 in cash, cellphones, laptop computers, a police scanner and wigs inside the SUV in which he was traveling.
He is now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting one of his 24 underage brides, prosecutors said.
In other testimony, Jennifer Smith, an administrator for the mail system at Texas' prisons, described the huge volume of letters that Jeffs still receives. Jeffs would get 1,000 to 2,000 letters per day when he was first locked up, though that number now tops out around 500 per day, she said.
Some letters written by Jeffs in prison weren't actually mailed because they were written in code, Smith said.
The trial ended for the day after a juror experienced a health problem. Testimony is expected to resume Tuesday.
It comes as a federal judge began hearing evidence Monday in a separate child labor case involving the sect. Federal investigators say a company tied to the faith used 1,400 unpaid laborers, including 175 children, from the sect during a 2012 pecan harvest in Utah.
Paragon Contractors says women and children were volunteering to collect fallen nuts, not working as employees.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud .