MEXICO CITY — Prosecutors in northern Mexico say they have detained wanted U.S. polygamist Orson William Black and his followers and are investigating whether Black was involved in the death of three American youths whose bodies were found at a ranch in September.
The arrest of Black on Sunday — along with four of his wives, a woman described as “a concubine” and about 20 Americans without proper documents — marks the end of the fundamentalist sect leader’s long, strange period on the lam.
Few thought the trail to finding him would end in bloodshed.
The prosecutors’ office in the border state of Chihuahua says Black, 56, was captured in an area largely populated by Mennonites and is under investigation for the deaths of three Americans aged 15, 19 and 23 on Sept. 10.
In keeping with Mexican legal practice, the office identified the victims only by their first names — Robert, Jesse and Michael — and suggested they may have all carried the last name Black.
Prosecutors did not say why Black was a suspect in their deaths, but suggested the victims may have been members of his religious group. Black is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that began after the main Mormon church disavowed polygamy in 1890. FLDS openly advocates plural marriage, and its members commonly have legal marriages with their first wife and “spiritual marriages” with the other wives.
Prosecutors’ curiosity was piqued when members of the sect didn’t claim the youth’s bodies.
“During the investigation, it was notable that the victims did not have birth certificates and that the members of the religious community who appeared to identify the dead did not claim the bodies, and so the U.S. consulate was contacted to provide information on this group,” the state prosecutors’ office said.
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City was not immediately available to offer information on the case.
Authorities caught Black, who also goes by the first name Larry William, in a two-day series of raids on several different homes used as the sect’s “commune,” according to prosecutors.
The raids turned up a bizarre collection of 65 stuffed animals or animal heads, including zebras, buffaloes, a lion and a bear. Authorities also found frozen animal carcasses.
Black was charged with illegal possession of wildlife and human smuggling, and the Americans caught with him were turned over to immigration authorities pending possible deportation.
Black has faced charges of sexual misconduct with minors in the U.S., but apparently fled to Mexico around 15 years ago.
He was able to hide successfully for years in an area in the northern state of Chihuahua where foreign religious sects go unnoticed.
The area is home to a Mennonite community which dates back to the 1920s and a community founded in the late 1940s by another sect from the United States that also broke away from the Mormon church after it disavowed the practice of polygamy.
Few of the families still practice plural marriage, and many are no longer practicing Mormons.
The townspeople now mainly farm, run cattle ranches and grow pecans.