Cracks are already showing in the group led by Warren Jeffs, but many faithful followers remain.
This week's arrest of Warren Jeffs, head of America's largest polygamous group, is a law-enforcement coup, but it leaves wide open the question of whether his followers will persist in their illegal practices or rejoin mainstream society.
Federal and state authorities, elated by Mr. Jeffs's capture Monday during a traffic stop north of Las Vegas, expect the latter.
The fugitive's arrest is "the beginning of the end of ... the tyrannical rule of a small group of people over the practically 10,000 followers" of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard in a radio interview.
Extremist-group experts, though, caution that it's too early to predict the sect's demise. "Yes, you have an infrastructure that has been decapitated. But you also have thousands of really sincere believers, and they are not going to just disappear," says Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism and a criminal-justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino.
Most of the church's members live in the twin communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. But in recent years, the group began building a massive compound in Eldorado, Texas, and there appears to be a large exodus of devoted followers to this new area.
FLDS adherents call Jeffs "the prophet," but they consider him God on earth. Until his death, he remains their chosen one. That means Jeffs is not likely to relinquish his power – even if convicted and sent to prison. Officials believe he led the sect while on the run this year – and for the nearly four months he was on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list – from charges of arranging illegal marriages between underage girls and older men.
Even so, leading such a large group from behind bars would be trickier because of limited communications.