Grand jury indicts polygamist sect members

July 22, 2008 7:29:35 PM PDT
A Texas grand jury indicted polygamist sect leader Warren 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. Attorney General Greg Abbott said the five men are charged with one count of sexually assaulting girls under age 17. One of them, but not the 52-year-old Jeffs, faces an additional charge of bigamy.

Abbott said a sixth member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is charged with three counts of failure to report child abuse.

Jeffs, already convicted of being accomplice to rape in Utah and awaiting trial in Arizona on other charges related to underage marriages, is accused of assaulting a girl in Texas in January 2005, according to the indictment issued Tuesday.

"Our investigation in this matter is not concluded," said Abbott, whose office is acting as the special prosecutor in the case.

The grand jury in this tiny western Texas ranching community will continue consideration of other possible criminal charges on Aug. 21, according to a source 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 in addition to him were not released Tuesday because the indictments remain sealed until authorities can arrest the men.

"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 Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado about five years ago.

Willie Jessop, a church member and spokesman, said members would face the accusations.

"We're actually quite shocked. As soon as we know who they're looking for, we'll try to face it," Jessop told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "We believe in our innocence."

He said that he didn't know who was indicted and that no one from law enforcement had tried to enter the ranch Tuesday evening.

The criminal indictments were issued after a separate child custody case in which more than 400 children were placed in foster care. The Texas Supreme Court ruled child welfare authorities overstepped in taking all the children from their parents even though many were infants and toddlers and the state failed to show any more than handful of teenage girls were abused or at risk.

The criminal charges came during the panel's second meeting on the case; it met in June without taking any action.

Abbott spent Tuesday in the small community building where the grand jury 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 separate child custody case involving the FLDS children have revealed some of the evidence collected by law enforcement during the weeklong raid that began April 3.

Among the hundreds of boxes of photos, papers and family Bibles, investigators found photos of Jeffs in intimate embraces and kissing several apparently underage girls, the documents say.

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 were also found in the raid.

In addition to discussions of the girl's marriage, the Jeffs journal entry also indicates he 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.