Authorities seek indicted polygamist sect members - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Authorities seek indicted polygamist sect members

Warren Jeffs Warren Jeffs

By MICHELLE ROBERTS Associated Press Writer
© 2008 The Associated Press

SAN ANGELO, Texas - Texas authorities on Wednesday began looking for five indicted members of a polygamist sect, in a child sex-abuse case that the group's spokesman alleged was a face-saving move by officials who lost a court battle over their seizure of hundreds of children from a sect-owned ranch.

The five men were indicted Tuesday with sect leader Warren Jeffs, who already was convicted in Utah and jailed in Arizona on charges related to underage marriages.

Jeffs and four of the followers were charged in Texas with felony sexual assault of a child, and the fifth follower was charged with failing to report child abuse. One of the followers also was charged with bigamy.

"Our office does have warrants in hand and indictments in hand," said Sheriff David Doran of Schleicher County, where the ranch is located. His tiny west Texas department was working with Texas Rangers and prosecutors to arrest the men.

The identities of the men and details of the accusations were to remain under seal until the men are arrested. Doran, who cultivated a relationship with the ranch's residents before state authorities raided the property April 3, said it's hard to tell whether they are even still in Texas.

"I haven't personally seen them since the raid took place," he said.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office is acting as the special prosecutor in the case, vowed Tuesday that authorities would make an aggressive effort to find the accused members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Church members have traditionally lived in two communities along the Arizona-Utah line, but they are often nomadic, moving between jobs and church member-controlled sites scattered across the West and Canada. The church bought the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado five years ago.

Jeffs, already convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice and awaiting trial in Arizona on other charges, is accused of assaulting a girl in Texas in January 2005.

FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop said Wednesday that law enforcement officials had not disclosed who they are looking for or tried to enter the ranch, but he said members would cooperate.

"We don't believe their evidence is credible. We don't believe they obtained it legally, but we'll stand up in court and face the allegations," he said. "We believe in our innocence."

Jessop said he believes the criminal prosecutions are designed to try to justify the raid and the subsequent placement of all the more than 400 children from the ranch into foster care. Calls alleging sexual abuse of girls at the ranch prompted the raid, but they are now believed to have been a hoax.

"We believe this is them trying to justify their unbelievable actions," he said. "We'll face them head-on."

The Texas Supreme Court ruled child welfare officials had overreached in placing the children in foster care because they didn't show any more than a handful of teenage girls were abused. The vast majority of the children taken were younger than 6 or were boys.

Law enforcement and prosecutors have said their investigation is continuing. The grand jury is expected to meet again Aug. 21.

"It's a large investigation and it's going to take some time to go through this," Doran said. The sheriff described Tuesday's indictments as helping to tell "the other side of the story" after the child custody case debacle.

Child Protective Services is also continuing its investigations, even with the roughly 440 children returned to their parents six weeks ago.

Agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said investigators will look at the living circumstances of the children associated with the men who were indicted and determine if they are safe.

"We know where each child is and we know the household situation, who lives there, et cetera," he said Wednesday, the same day some parents began court-ordered parenting classes. "We'll take a closer look at each one of those family situations to verify that the appropriate protections are in place."

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 and has sought to distance itself from the FLDS.

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