PALESTINE (AP) – Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was hospitalized Monday in a medically induced coma in critical condition after fasting in the weeks since receiving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage followers he took as spiritual brides, officials said.
The 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was expected to survive, an official familiar with Jeffs’ medical condition told The Associated Press. It was not clear how long Jeffs — who has a history of refusing to eat while incarcerated — would remain in the coma or how long he would be hospitalized, the official said.
The official requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the information publicly.
Doctors were not specific about why Jeffs was put into the coma.
Jeffs’ attorney Emily Detoto said her client “hasn’t been feeling well” and was taken to East Texas Medical Center in Tyler on Sunday night. She declined to elaborate.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said Jeffs was in critical condition, but Lyons would not give specific details about his status. Lyons said Jeffs told corrections officers he’s fasted in the time since his conviction earlier this month, though it was not immediately clear how long he’d gone without food before being hospitalized.
During Jeffs’ trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show he fathered a child with a 15-year-old and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. Both were among 24 underage wives whom prosecutors said Jeffs collected.
Court documents show Jeffs tried to hang himself in January 2007 while awaiting trial on rape charges in Washington County, Utah. He also threw himself against the walls of his cell and banged his head, although he later told a mental health expert he really wasn’t trying to kill himself.
During a visit with a brother that same month that was videotaped by jail officials, Jeffs said he’d been fasting for three days and remained awake during the night. Days later, he was taken to a hospital and given medication for depression. The court documents said he’d lost 30 pounds, was dehydrated and suffering from sleep deprivation.
Jeffs also had to be temporarily force-fed in 2009 while in the Kingman, Ariz., jail.
In Texas, Jeffs has been in protective custody, which is among the most restrictive forms of imprisonment in the state. He was to be alone in his cell daily, not be involved in any work programs and to be out of his cell only to shower and for recreation by himself.
Jeffs is among only 85 inmates in the 156,000-prisoner Texas corrections system to be assigned protective custody.
The life sentence was the harshest possible for Jeffs’ convictions, and he isn’t eligible for parole until he is at least 100 years old. He had been in a Huntsville prison immediately after his trial, then was moved last week to the Powledge Unit outside Palestine, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas.
Former church members have said Jeffs likely would continue to lead his Utah-based church from inside prison and that his followers likely still revere him as a prophet despite the considerable evidence presented at his trial showing he sexually assaulted girls as young as 12.
The basic principles of Jeffs’ fundamentalist sect are rooted in polygamy, a legacy of early Mormon church teachings that held plural marriage brought exaltation in heaven. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainstream Mormon church, abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood and excommunicates members who engage in the practice.