SAN ANGELO, Texas – A single photograph introduced in court Friday could define Texas’ case against a polygamous sect: FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs cradling a 12-year-old girl in his arms and kissing her, a state attorney said, “how a husband would kiss a wife.”
The photo was introduced in a custody hearing for an infant born nearly two weeks ago to Louisa Bradshaw Jessop, whose two older children were taken into state care during an April raid on the sect’s YFZ Ranch in west Texas.
The court-approved raid, which removed more than 450 children, was based on the state’s belief that young girls were being wed to older men and that boys were being groomed to continue the practice.
The hearing came a day after Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals ruled that a trial judge did not have enough evidence to keep every child from the ranch, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Friday, the state appealed to the Texas Supreme Court to stay that order, and lawyers for the FLDS filed briefs explaining why the high court shouldn’t.
Amid the legal wrangling, there was another development: Texas Child Protective Services representatives in San Antonio agreed to reunite 12 children with their parents until the Texas Supreme Court considers the stay request.
CPS said the three families could live in the area under state supervision.
Louisa Bradshaw Jessop, 22, spent two hours on the witness stand in San Angelo. She gave halting answers to questions from state attorney Ellen Griffith about how long she had been at the ranch, who shares the building where she lives, and whether she had known about any inappropriate relationships there.
Jessop often simply responded, “I don’t know” or, “I can’t remember right now.”
She offered little information about her father-in-law, Merrill Jessop, or his wife Barbara – both of whom are described as abusive in a book by former plural wife Carolyn Jessop, who has assisted the state since the April raid.
Asked whom she had seen at the two-story home shared by her in-laws, Louisa responded, “I saw me.”
Jeffs, the sect’s leader, presided over her 2003 marriage at age 17 to Dan Jessop.
Louisa Jessop was shown photos of Jeffs kissing young girls, at least one of whom is one of Merrill Jessop’s daughters, and said she did not know if they were married. She said she thought the behavior was inappropriate.
In FLDS culture, a man can have physical contact with a female only if they are married. There was no discussion on whether sexual intimacy occurred.
Griffith asked if she knew why Jeffs was in prison and she responded, “For unjust causes as far as I’m concerned,” and added that Jeffs “is perfect to me.”
Randal Stout, who represents her infant, got her to agree that living in a home where underage mothers also reside might be seen as failing to protect her own children.
Louisa Jessop broke down when Lexie Wiley, her attorney, asked about being separated from her children and said the state had changed her status from disputed minor to adult “about the second” her baby was born.
Louisa said she would abide by Texas law as far as her own children’s marriages.
When Louisa’s husband, Dan Jessop, took the stand, state attorney Eric Tai showed him the photo of Jeffs kissing the young girl – his sister – and asked what he thought of it.
“I think there’s everything wrong with that,” he said. “It’s against my religion and against my beliefs.”
Asked if he thought the scene amounted to sexual abuse, Jessop said, “I do not consider a girl kissing a man sexual abuse.”
Tai asked Jessop if his sister was married to Jeffs, who was convicted in Utah this year of being an accomplice to rape for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old FLDS girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
Jessop said he did not know.
“Seeing an image like that, what do you think?” Tai asked.
“It seems a little wild to me,” Jessop answered, “but you see a lot more wild things than that driving down the streets of the city.”
Griffith would not divulge the origin of the photos, but provided the court with a 2003 bishop’s record that included a birth date indicating the girl was 12 at the time – July 27, 2006 – a month before Jeffs was arrested in Nevada after being on the lam for nearly two years.
Rod Parker, an FLDS spokesman, called the state’s use of the photographs of Jeffs a “gratuitous publicity stunt by CPS which doesn’t go to the issue at court, which is whether a baby is in immediate danger by what someone else did.”
The hearing will resume Tuesday before 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, who approved the raid in April.
Walther acknowledged that the appellate court’s decision was looming in the background of the case and said she had been criticized for not allowing enough evidence to be let in during a custody hearing in April.
“We’re going to have a full-blown adversarial hearing,” she said, “and if it takes two to three days, we’re going to do it.”