July 23, 2008

Grand Jury Indicts Six People From West Texas Polygamist Sect

By Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 23--ELDORADO, Texas -- Six men from a West Texas polygamist community -- including incarcerated sect leader Warren Jeffs -- have been indicted by a grand jury on charges including felony sexual assault of a child.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who announced the charges against members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Tuesday evening, would not reveal the identities of the five other men.

He said he hopes to extradite Mr. Jeffs, who is in an Arizona jail awaiting separate charges, to Texas "as quickly as possible." But he wouldn't comment on the whereabouts of the other men from the Yearning for Zion ranch.

"The indictments issued today are part of an ongoing and continuing criminal investigation," Mr. Abbott said. "There will be an aggressive attempt to apprehend them."

Neither attorneys for the FLDS or Willie Jessop, who is leading the Eldorado sect in Mr. Jeff's absence, could be reached for comment following the indictments.

But outside the courthouse Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Jessop told reporters that he hoped there would be no criminal charges, and said the grand jury proceedings were "a continued harassment" of the sect.

"Our ladies are upset, they've been in the sun all day," said Mr. Jessop, who was subpoenaed to testify Tuesday. The state "has spent millions of dollars on this, and now they've got to justify it."

The state on Tuesday released a new estimate that exceeds $12.5 million for the cost of the raid at the polygamist ranch and its aftermath.

The state alleges that sect members permitted a culture of sexual abuse and "spiritual" marriages between young girls and older men to flourish inside the polygamist community.

This spring, child welfare investigators got a court order to seize 440 children and roughly two dozen women from the ranch and put them under state custody. That action was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court months later.

Of the men indicted Tuesday, five where charged with felony sexual assault of a child, and one of them also was charged with felony bigamy. A sixth man was charged with a misdemeanor, failing to report child abuse.

Mr. Jeffs, 52, was one of the men indicted for felony sexual assault of a child. He once was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and has been sentenced for crimes he committed in Utah.

The sect leader is awaiting trial in Arizona on charges related to arranging the marriages of underage girls. He was hospitalized this month after he was found convulsive and feverish in his cell.

The Texas Rangers will lead the effort to round up and arrest the other men, some of whom may not be living in Texas.

Throughout a long day of testimony on Tuesday, several sect women wearing dark-colored prairie dresses filed into and out of the courtroom, some leaving almost as soon as they arrived, and others wiping their eyes with tissues.

The six -- one of whom is incarcerated sect leader Warren Jeffs -- were indicted on charges including felony sexual assault of a child and bigamy after several female sect members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints testified Tuesday.

One 25-year-old sect member who identified himself as Ben said the women all invoked their Fifth Amendment rights not to testify.

By midafternoon, the grand jury proceeding appeared to have ground to a halt, and the same district judge who ordered the removal of the sect's children in April arrived to try to sort things out.

Among the women who testified on Tuesday were Veda Keate, 19, who has a 2-year-old daughter; LeAnn Jeffs, 17, who has a 1-year-old daughter; and Sarah Barlow Draper, 37, a registered nurse with four children.

Teresa Jeffs, 16, the daughter of Warren Jeffs, also testified. According to a child advocate report filed earlier this month, Ms. Jeffs was married to a 34-year-old man shortly after her 15th birthday.

"They had cameras in their faces, photographers following their every moves," Mr. Jessop said of the women subpoenaed to testify. Authorities have "made every effort to intimidate and harass them."

Mr. Jessop was pulled over by authorities Tuesday morning while driving his white Mercedes SUV -- first for speeding and, a mile later, to be served with a subpoena.

Last month, the Schleicher County grand jury heard the first evidence against the Mormon breakaway sect, but did not indict anyone. The grand jury will meet again late next month and could bring more charges.

The West Texas polygamy case will get more national attention on Thursday, when the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., takes up the issue.

Staff writer Robert T. Garrett contributed to this report.


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