BEAVER, Utah - Polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs has resumed eating after a period of fasting in jail that left doctors so concerned about an "imminent" risk of death that he was forcibly fed, officials said Tuesday.
Jeffs, 53, is the head of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He is jailed awaiting trial on charges related to alleged underage marriages involving sect girls. Jeffs has been in prison since February 2008 following a Utah conviction on two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 marriage of an underage follower to her husband.
A former fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted list, Jeffs was arrested in August 2006 during a traffic stop near Las Vegas. While in a southern Utah jail awaiting trial, he suffered from depression and was hospitalized after an attempted suicide in January 2007. Throughout his incarceration he has been known to fast and spend long periods on his knees in prayer.
Jeffs is also facing criminal charges of bigamy and sexual assault of a child. The charges stem from information gathered by authorities during a raid on a church ranch near Eldorado last year.
"He has resumed eating and he is recovering, but he's got to continue to be monitored because his health is still at risk," Mohave County sheriff's spokeswoman Trish Carter said.
Carter said she did not know when Jeffs first began refusing food or when he resumed eating.
The Kingman, Arizona, jail began force-feeding Jeffs on Friday. In a letter filed with the Mohave Superior Court the same day, the jail's medical director said Jeffs had been refusing food and was no longer urinating. Medical Director Kirsten Mortenson said Jeffs' vital signs were worsening and he was suffering peripheral edema - the swelling of extremities like hands, feet and legs - brought on by "protein/calorie malnutrition."
"This deterioration will continue to accelerate and become harder to reverse the longer it persists," Mortenson wrote in a letter to Judge Steven F. Conn. "His death could be imminent without immediate medical intervention."
Contacted by cellphone Tuesday by The Associated Press, Mortenson said federal privacy laws prevented her from making any comment.
"I can't even tell you if I've seen him," she said.
On Tuesday, Jeffs' Tucson, Arizona, attorney Michael Piccarreta said he did not know the status of his client's medical condition, but that the situation was not unusual.
"Mr. Jeffs is a deeply religious man and sometimes engages in lengthy religious practices while in jail. When he does, he declines food and beverages and this sometimes occurs," he said. "If you look at other religious and political people who have been wrongly incarcerated, you'll see others have gone through this."
Piccarreta, who represents Jeffs in two pending criminal cases, said he believed Mohave County handled the situation appropriately. Jeffs is more than 6 feet (1.83 metres) tall and has always been slight, Piccarreta noted.
"There's not a lot of extra pounds," he said.
The FLDS tie their religious roots to the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and practice polygamy in arranged marriages. The Mormon church renounced plural marriages in 1890 as part of Utah's push for statehood.
On the Net:
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: www.fldstruth.org
Mohave County Superior Court: www.mohavecourts.com