Texas grand jury indicts polygamist sect members
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By MICHELLE ROBERTS
Associated Press Writer
ELDORADO, Texas (AP) — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, already convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice and awaiting trial in Arizona on other charges related to underage marriages, is now accused of assaulting a girl in Texas in January 2005.
A grand jury in this tiny western Texas ranching community indicted Jeffs and four of his followers Tuesday on charges of felony sexual assault of a child. Another was indicted for failing to report child abuse.
The charges came nearly two months after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that child welfare officials overstepped when they took all the children from the polygamist sect’s ranch in a separate child custody case. The state had accused the sect of forcing underage girls into marriage and motherhood.
While authorities sorted out the custody dispute in civil court, law enforcement continued a criminal investigation by sifting through hundreds of boxes of documents, photos and family Bibles seized from the Yearning For Zion Ranch during an April raid.
State Attorney General Greg Abbott said five members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are charged with one count of sexually assaulting girls under age 17, a felony. One of them, not the 52-year-old Jeffs, faces an additional charge of bigamy.
Abbott said a sixth member of the FLDS is charged with three counts of failure to report child abuse.
"Our investigation in this matter is not concluded," said the attorney general, whose office is acting as the special prosecutor in the case.
The grand jury will continue consideration of other possible criminal charges on Aug. 21, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity because proceedings of the panel are secret by law.
The identities of the Jeffs’ followers who were indicted were not released Tuesday because the indictments remain sealed until authorities can arrest the men. Jeffs is in custody in Arizona.
"There will be an aggressive effort to apprehend them," Abbott said when asked whether he was concerned the men might have fled Texas.
FLDS members have historically lived around the Arizona-Utah line and bought the YFZ ranch in Eldorado about five years ago.
"We’re actually quite shocked. As soon as we know who they’re looking for, we’ll try to face it," Willie Jessop, a church member and spokesman, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "We believe in our innocence."
He said he didn’t know who was indicted and that no one from law enforcement had tried to enter the ranch Tuesday evening.
More than 400 children from the ranch had been placed in foster care in April. The Texas Supreme Court said officials had evidence that only a few teenage girls were abused or at risk, and many of the children taken from their parents were infants and toddlers.
The criminal charges came during the grand jury’s second meeting on the case; it met in June without taking any action.
Abbott spent Tuesday in the small community building where the panel was meeting near the courthouse. Women and girls in prairie dresses, including a 16-year-old daughter of Jeffs, were escorted in and out, while lawyers and FLDS members crowded a bench in front of the courthouse.
Grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret, but documents released as part of the child custody case have revealed some of the evidence collected by law enforcement during the weeklong raid that began April 3.
Investigators said they found photos of Jeffs in intimate embraces and kissing several apparently underage girls.
A journal entry purportedly from Jeffs attached to a report by a child advocate indicates he married his daughter to a 34-year-old man the day after she turned 15. The girl turns 17 on Saturday and has denied being married, though the child advocate report indicates intimate notes between the girl and man also were found in the raid.
Besides discussions of the girl’s marriage, the journal entry also indicates Jeffs blessed marriages of two other underage sect members to himself and another member.
FLDS leaders have consistently denied there was any abuse at the ranch and vowed not to sanction underage marriages.
Under Texas law, a girl younger than 17 cannot generally consent to sex with an adult. Bigamy is also illegal in Texas, and although FLDS plural marriages were not licensed by the state, the law contains a provision outlawing the act of "purporting to marry" more than one person.
The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glory in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially renounced polygamy more than a century ago.