The trial of Warren Jeffs, the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, starts today.
Jeffs is charged with sexual assault of one child and aggravated sexual assault of another. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted and will be tried separately on bigamy charges in October.
The trial stems from his “ecclesiastical” or “spiritual” marriage to two girls, aged 12 and 14, at the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ) in West Texas that Jeffs set up in 2002 when he took control of the sect after his father, longtime FLDS “Prophet” and insurance salesman Rulon Jeffs, died.
It was not a legal civil marriage with a license, due to the girls’ ages and the fact that at the time Jeffs was ‘married’ to several other women. […]
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That Jeffs, once one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, faces a Texas trial at all is due to a tip authorities received about the YFZ compound and to the perseverance of state Attorney General Greg Abbott.
In 2008, shortly after Texas Rangers raided the ranch, seizing evidence of plural marriage and child sexual assault and taking 430 children into protective custody, Abbott vowed to prosecute Jeffs and other FLDS men “to the fullest extent of the law.”
When the Texas raid took place, Jeffs was in prison in Utah, serving a 10-year sentence for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her older first cousin. The state of Arizona was waiting to press similar charges.
Last year, the Utah Supreme Court overturned Jeffs’ 2007 conviction on rape-related charges, citing problems with jury instructions. He was extradited to Texas, where Abbott had secured major sexual assault indictments against him. […]
Jeffs is expected to argue that the raid was illegal because the woman who telephoned a domestic violence hotline, claiming to be a 16-year-old girl being sexually assaulted, was in fact a 33-year-old woman. The man she named as her abuser, who is an FLDS member, was not in Texas at the time.
If the raid were deemed illegal, that could exclude much of the evidence prosecutors hope to use against him at trial.
Trial may present followers with a dilemma
The Salt Lake Tribune says Jeff’s trial will present his followers with a choice:
Whether or not Warren Jeffs is found guilty in Texas, his true fate will arguably be decided by the 10,000 or more people spread over at least five states and two countries who believe he is a prophet of God.
Authorities predicted Jeffs’ power would crumble five years ago, when he was arrested on criminal charges in Utah. But even now, as he has spent more of his nine years of leadership imprisoned than free, most Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints people seem to have remained faithful to him.
This year, the 55-year-old Jeffs has received thousands of letters from followers, led Sunday sermons over the phone, and, most spectacularly, has excommunicated dozens of men, forcing them to leave their homes and families — all from his Texas jail cell.
If they believe in him, it seems, he doesn’t need to be free.
But that could change as allegations are exposed in Jeffs’s upcoming trial. Former FLDS spokesman Willie R. Jessop said his own knowledge of the evidence gathered during a massive 2008 raid on the group’s Yearning for Zion Ranch led him to conclude Jeffs was “morally indefensible,” and break from the leadership earlier this year.
“I don’t believe that any members of the church would condone what Warren was doing in secret,” he said. “The challenge they have is coming to grips with the reality that was brought about by the raid.”
And now there is a rival prophet. Former high-ranking elder William E. Jessop (a distant cousin to the former spokesman) emerged this year after some four years in hiding to claim he should be the leader, igniting an increasingly heated struggle for control.
The trial begins Monday morning in Courtroom A of the Tom Green County Courthouse with jury selection, which is expected to take three days.
“The state is ready to proceed to trial,” said Lauren Beam, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
It may be a different story for the defense. As recently as Friday, Jeffs’ latest attorney, hired days before, asked for more time to prepare.
At pretrial hearings last week, attorneys asked to remove Walther and expressed intentions to try to move the trial away from San Angelo.
Motions to remove the presiding judge were denied. A venue hearing may be held depending on whether a jury can be seated.
A motion to suppress evidence, the material gathered in the state’s historic raid on the YFZ Ranch in April 2008, was sealed by Walther and will be heard during the jury-selection process.
Some observers believe that Jeff’s followers will have no choice but to reject him as a ‘prophet of God’ after they learn of the evidence that will be presented during his trial.
The child’s bright eyes and smooth hair make her smiling face look doll-like in the arms of the tall, gangly man. Her face is hidden in the next photo, when the 50-year-old bends his head to kiss her full on the mouth.
As a member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the 12-year-old girl would have considered Warren Jeffs a prophet of God. Five years ago, the child allegedly became one of at least 80 of his wives.
The images could be the top of a billion-page mountain of evidence from two states likely to be laid bare when Jeffs, now 55, goes on trial Monday in Texas. Some has already trickled out, including court documents pointing to Jeffs spiritually marrying at least 10 underage girls, some as young as 12, before his 2006 arrest. Jeffs is charged with sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child in two of those alleged marriages, one to a girl younger than 17 and the other to the 12-year-old. A separate bigamy trial is set for October.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know about … things that have taken place that will just shock and upset everyone,” said private investigator Sam Brower, who has spent seven years looking into the FLDS in Utah. “My feeling is that it’s time for everything to come out.”
Texas prosecutors have already successfully jailed seven other FLDS men. If Jeffs is also found guilty in a trial expected to last about a month, hundreds of other alleged wrongdoings will be exposed at his sentencing.
The FLDS, which is believed to have about 10,000 members, splintered from the Mormon Church more than a century ago when Mormon leaders renounced the practice (though not necessarily the LDS Church’s theology) of polygamy.
The sect believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven and should be protected under U.S. religious freedoms.
Theologically, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) is a sect of Mormonism.
Sociologically, the FLDS is a high-demand, high-control, destructive cult. Among other things, it teaches and practices polygamy, breaks up families and marriages, and has engaged in arranged and forced marriages.