Turning Up the Heat on Polygamists

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Trent Nelson / Pool / AP

Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) had basked in victory after the Texas Supreme Court ordered the return of the children taken from its ranch in Eldorado in April. But the state's attorney general Greg Abbott pledged to prosecute FLDS members to the full extent of the law. And this week, after going through evidence taken from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, Abbott indicted Warren Jeffs — the "Prophet" of the polygamists — along with four of his followers on charges of first-degree felony sexual assault of a minor. (The four men were not named, and law-enforcement officials are still seeking their arrest.) Evidence gathered during the raid included two photographs of young girls — one age 12, the other 13 — sitting in Jeffs' lap and embracing him, and kissing him in one photo. One was marked "first anniversary," the other as a marriage photo.

The 12-year-old shown kissing Jeffs is a stepdaughter of Carolyn Jessop, whose book Escape details her flight from the FLDS. Married at 18 to 50-year-old Merrill Jessop — now the 72-year-old leader at the YFZ Ranch — she said one of her daughters had a recent conversation about the photograph with her half brother who still lives at the ranch. "What's wrong with it?" the boy asked. "There is a lot of denial," Carolyn Jessop says, and Jeffs still commands loyalty despite his imprisonment. Jeffs moved the FLDS "aristocracy" to Texas, Jessop says, and little girls were given great status as they were married off to older men: "spiritual marriages" (polygamy) pave the way to the highest ring of heaven, and this enhances the girls' social position.

Sam Brower, a Utah-based private detective who deals with FLDS issues, compares the sect's structure to feudal Europe, when daughters served as pawns in alliances. "If your father-in-law is prominent, this helps with business dealings — maybe you have another wife and then you have daughters that you can place with other church members," Brower says. "The circle goes around — the more business dealings, the more wives, the more daughters, the more business dealings, and it goes on."

Preserving that world was probably on Jeffs' mind when he decided in 2003 to move a large portion of his flock to the scrublands of West Texas. He perhaps imagined that on 1,300 acres of dusty ranchland behind barbed-wire fences and iron gates, his community would enjoy the fabled live-and-let-live world of the American frontier. After all, this was a wide-open land where good neighbors were neighborly but not nosy, where a man could turn a page and start anew with few questions raised about his past. "They thought they were safe behind those walls and that Texas would never mess with them," says Randy Mankin, the editor of the Eldorado Success, the small-town newspaper that has chronicled events at the nearby FLDS ranch from the compound's founding through the April 2008 raid by Texas officials that swept up more than 400 children.

Jeffs probably thought history protected him. Texas was probably gun-shy after the 1993 Branch Davidian conflagration near Waco. There was also one legal precedent that gave the FLDS comfort: the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, that struck down the Texas sodomy law, closing the doors on the bedroom. The decision was hailed by gay activists as a landmark, but it also apparently heartened Jeffs. (It was soon cited by defense attorneys in their plans to appeal the 2003 conviction of a Utah man found guilty of underage sex and bigamy.) Says Mankin: "They thought the shadow of Waco would protect them, and they hung a lot of hope on Lawrence v. Texas."

But there also is a tradition of tough — and swift — justice in West Texas. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law and news spread of the polygamists' move to the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a local state representative worked quickly and quietly to change the state's antiquated marriage laws. The age of consent was raised from 14 to 16, and marriages between stepchildren and stepparents were outlawed. The changes were modeled on a Utah law that was believed to have prompted Jeffs' decision to move his flock to more-remote places in Texas, Colorado and Mexico.

Jeffs was convicted in September 2007 of being an accessory to rape for presiding over the marriage of a young girl and given a five-years-to-life sentence in Utah. He will face similar charges in Arizona; in Texas, more charges (apart from this week's felony) are likely to be forthcoming when the grand jury reconvenes in August. Texas Ranger captain L.C. Wilson, in charge of the investigation, told the San Angelo Standard-Times on Wednesday that while most of the 300 boxes of evidence gathered at the raid have been examined, an undisclosed number of terabytes (1,000 gigabytes) of digital information remains to be scrutinized.

There are murmurs of discontent within the Utah/Arizona FLDS community. The increasing legal troubles of the FLDS leadership could feed doubts about Jeffs, says Carolyn Jessop. However, his hold on members is not just religious. Jeffs is at the center of a financial and business trust that, among other things, assigns homes to families. "So many are networked into his crime," Jessop says. "Husbands were kicked out; ladies knew they were safe if they were obedient. If they had lots of daughters, they got handed out to everybody — it was like a feast." If a man resists the leadership, he risks losing his wife (or wives) and his home, she says. "If a woman does, her children are taken from her." The coercive power of the FLDS is immense, she says. "Right now, leaving the FLDS is like jumping off a cliff."