AUSTIN, Texas | Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Friday that the state faces a “massive legal undertaking” in its prosecution of a secretive polygamist sect in West Texas, describing it as the largest and most far-reaching apparent sex abuse case he’s ever seen or heard of in Texas.
“This is some of the worst abuse I’ve ever heard of, and we want to ensure that first, these children are going to be protected from any further abuse, and second, that anyone who harmed them illegally will be brought to justice,” Abbott said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
To that end, Abbott has made experts available to local authorities to help determine parental links, ensure law enforcement access to seized documents and prepare for any appeals that might arise in child protection and custody disputes. Texas Child Protective Services has removed 416 children, who were voluntarily accompanied by 139 adult women, officials say.
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Many of the children expected to obtain court-appointed legal representation.
“This is a small county with a big problem,” Abbott said, referring to the sparsely populated ranching county where the sect lived in a secluded compound outside the small town of Eldorado, Texas. “This is a massive legal undertaking that will require a tremendous amount of resources.”
No charges have been filed against anyone so far.
State leaders have already invoked emergency spending powers to assist with the logistics and legal aftermath of the raid on the sprawling YFZ Ranch, home to the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. The sect split from the mainstream Mormon Church when the latter rejected polygamy in 1890.
The Texas attorney general can only directly assist criminal prosecutions when formally invited to do so by county authorities. So far that has not happened. However, Abbott said his office is providing technical expertise and legal advice on a more informal basis.
“We stand ready to assist either the DA’s office or the CPS on any issues that may arise,” he said.
Legal experts say it won’t be easy or quick to prosecute the FLDS, which has a large team of lawyers in Texas, led by respected criminal defense attorney Gerry Goldstein.
In a court motion filed by Goldstein this week seeking relief from the search warrants, he contended that the temple was a “religious sanctuary” and that the authorities violated the First Amendment rights of church members. But a judge let the search warrants stand.
“It is going to be a difficult proposition to prosecute these cases, in my opinion,” said Dan Hagood, a defense attorney and former Dallas County, Texas, prosecutor. “It will be a hard-fought battle both legally and factually.” Hagood said the prosecution could easily drag on for months or even years.
Getting young and frightened witnesses to testify against their leaders, whom authorities suspect of presiding over ritualistic sexual abuse of underage girls, will be the toughest — yet most important — component of the prosecution, experts say. Experts and former cult members say leaders instill a sense of fear of the outside world and warn followers not to cooperate with law enforcement.
The challenge of finding cooperative witnesses arose in the prosecutions of eight FLDS members in Arizona. Charges were eventually dropped against three of them and another was found not guilty; three got relatively modest jail sentences and another pleaded no-contest to a lesser charger than originally sought, according to published reports.