July 22, 2008

Sect Leaders Could Face Indictment in West Texas

By Terri Langford, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 22--ELDORADO -- Grand jurors will meet this morning in a small West Texas town to consider whether to indict members of the nation's largest polygamist group for their role in arranging underage marriages.

The state of Texas raided a ranch north of Eldorado, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, after receiving information that girls under age 18 were being placed in "spiritual marriages" with men.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott arrived late Monday in San Angelo, 45 miles north of Eldorado, and is expected to oversee the presentation of evidence by his staff attorneys, Angela Goodwin and prosecution chief Eric Nichols.

Abbott's presence is interpreted by those close to the investigation as an indication that indictments are imminent. However, a key issue today will be whether the state's reliance on members of the FLDS, including several young girls, will stymie the pursuit of criminal charges.

During the grand jury's first meeting on this matter in June, sources say, the girls took advantage of their right under the Fifth Amendment not to answer questions, on the basis that the information they gave could incriminate them.

Members of the public are not allowed to be present during grand jury proceedings. A grand jury is made of local residents who consider the prosecution's evidence and determine whether it is sufficient to charge defendants.

Even if indictments are returned, it is likely that the names of those indicted will be kept secret until after arrests have been made.

Since the April raid at the FLDS' Yearning For Zion Ranch, church members have given different names and information to authorities, slowing the investigation process.

More than 400 children were removed from the ranch by Texas Child Protective Services after the raid, but were returned a month later after the Texas Supreme Court said the agency did not prove that the children were so in danger that removal was the only option.

The FLDS began moving hundreds of its members to the 1,700-acre Yearning For Zion Ranch in 2004, about the time their president and "prophet," Warren Jeffs, became wanted by police for his role in forcing young girls to marry in Utah.

The FLDS claims the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona as home with satellite settlements in South Dakota, Canada and other states.

Jeffs eventually was arrested by police during a routine traffic stop. He was convicted last year on two counts of being an accomplice to rape for his role in forcing a 14-year-old sect member to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

Since the raid on the ranch, the FLDS has announced it will no longer allow the marriage of girls younger than 18.

The FLDS sect broke with the Mormon church more than 100 years ago after Mormons stopped practicing polygamy so that Utah could be granted statehood.

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