Polygamist Leader's First Wife Fights for Custody of Kids

An estranged wife of polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs says she fought for custody of two of their children because she was worried the sect was going to ship them away.

Audio recordings of a juvenile court hearing in April reveal Charlene Jeffs' attorney told a state judge that she was worried the teenagers would be hidden, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The recordings, recently released to the Tribune, offer a window into a former follower's fear of leaving the church and losing her children. Attorney Roger Hoole told state Judge Michael Leavitt that large trucks have been leaving the polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border. While it's not clear what's going on, Hoole told the judge during a closed April 20 hearing that he believes children are being moved.

The couple is getting divorced; she is his first wife. It's unknown exactly how many wives he has, but traditionally leaders in the sect take many wives, sometimes a dozen or more.

After the hearings, Lyle and Charlene Jeffs agreed on shared custody of the children, a 14-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy. Leavitt approved the agreement that mandates that the kids will live primarily with Charlene Jeffs but see their father every other weekend and for longer stretches in summers.

Lyle Jeffs didn't attend the hearings, but wrote on the document he was signing under protest that Charlene Jeffs be named the custodial parent. He agreed to pay $1,000 a month in child support, a figure that decreases to $600 a month when the boy turns 18. He will also pay for the children's doctor bills and education, provide a vehicle for the boy, and pay up to $2,000 a month to cover two-thirds of Charlene Jeffs' housing costs. 

Lyle Jeffs is believed to run the day-to-day operations of the sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. His brother, Warren Jeffs, is still considered the group's leader and prophet, but he still sends guidance via phone calls and emails from the Texas prison where he is sentenced to life for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

Leavitt said he was fine with the custody agreement, but expressed concern about where and how the handoff of the children would occur. Earlier this year, police were forced to step in during a tense standoff in the community when loyal followers of Warren Jeffs blocked a different former follower from taking her children.

The Jeffs agreed on meeting at a public park to make the transfer with sheriff's deputies present. Charlene Jeffs warned the judge that the plan they settled on would have to be followed precisely to avoid Lyle Jeffs from getting angry and backing out.

"I've seen him just stop everything and turn the opposite way if it's not exactly the way he talked about," Charlene Jeff said in court.

The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Mormon church, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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