HOUSTON (Reuters) – A Texas grand jury on Tuesday charged the jailed polygamist leader of a breakaway Mormon sect with sexually assaulting a child and indicted five followers after state officials raided a polygamist ranch near Eldorado in April.
Included in the indictments issued by a grand jury in Schleicher County, Texas, was Warren Jeffs, the controversial spiritual leader and self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs has already been sentenced in a Utah court to 10 years to life in prison as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old first cousin. He is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on similar charges for arranged marriages there.
The indictments, announced by the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott against Jeffs and five others, totaled nine counts of sexual assault, bigamy and related charges.
Jeffs was charged with sexually assaulting a child – a first-degree felony that could carry a life prison sentence – and four other unnamed defendants were indicted for allegedly sexually assaulting young girls under the age of 17.
The last unnamed defendant was charged with three counts of failure to report child abuse.
Abbott’s office did not release any more information on the case and said the indictments were part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
“The indictments issued today are part of an ongoing and continuing criminal investigation,” said the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, who presented the case to the grand jury.
Willie Jessop, a church member and spokesman, said on Tuesday that members would face the accusations, The Associated Press reported. “We’re actually quite shocked,” Mr. Jessop said. “As soon as we know who they’re looking for, we’ll try to face it. We believe in our innocence.”
The indictments came seven weeks after the Texas Supreme Court ordered child welfare officials to return to their parents 460 children removed from the sect’s Yearning for Zion Ranch and placed into foster care in early April. The court said the authorities had overreached in removing all the children.
The group says polygamy is necessary to achieve the highest level of glory in heaven. The sect split from the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church after the church renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition for Utah to gain statehood.
Among the individuals subpoenaed to testify today were:
• Teresa Jeffs, the 16-year-old daughter of incarcerated sect leader Warren Jeffs. A child advocate report filed earlier this month indicated she had been married to a 34-year-old man shortly after her 15th birthday. Ms. Jeffs has been involved in a public and frequently nasty fight with her guardian ad litem.
• Veda Keate, a 19-year-old with a 2-year-old daughter. The Attorney General’s Office served a search warrant on her earlier this month.
• LeAnn Jeffs, 17, who has a 1-year-old daughter. She has been living in San Antonio with her mother and siblings.
• Sarah Barlow Draper, 37, who was reassigned to a different man after her former husband, Dan Barlow, was excommunicated from the church. She has four children and is a registered nurse who has been working at an Abilene hospital. At one point, authorities believed Mrs. Draper was a minor.
Several other sect women, wearing long, dark-colored prairie dresses, waited with their attorneys earlier today under large trees outside the courthouse. One of them was Annette Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ first wife.
The state alleges that sect members permitted a culture of sexual abuse to flourish inside the polygamist community, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This spring, following a court order from District Judge Barbara Walther, child welfare investigators seized 440 children and roughly two dozen women from the ranch and put them under state custody, a move that was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court months later.