Polygamist ranch leader indicted
SAN ANTONIO — The 72-year-old presiding elder of a breakaway Mormon sect and two other church members turned themselves into authorities Monday to face felony charges relating to the underage marriage of girls to older men.
Frederick “Merril” Jessop, a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, faces one count of conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony involving a minor, a felony.
One of his daughters was allegedly married to jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs at 12 and is now the only child from the ranch in foster care after her mother refused to cooperate with child welfare authorities.
A grand jury in Eldorado, Texas, indicted Jessop, Jeffs and two other members of FLDS on Nov. 12. Jeffs, convicted in Utah and awaiting trial in Arizona, faces charges in Texas of sexual assault of a child and bigamy.
The two other men who turned themselves in Monday are:
_ Wendell Loy Nielsen, 68, charged with three counts of bigamy. The indictment includes few details, but church records released as part of a separate child custody case list 21 women married to Nielsen in August 2007.
_ Leroy Johnson Steed, 42, who is charged with sexual assault of a child, bigamy and tampering with evidence. Church records show Steed married to a 16-year-old girl in March 2007.
All three men were booked Monday and then released after posting bond.
“We’ve said all along we’re not running. We’re going to take it head on,” said FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop. “The allegations they’re making and what they’re trying to do is nothing more than harassment.”
Church records and journal entries released in the custody case indicate several of Merril Jessop’s daughters were married to men in the church when they were 16 or younger.
One of Merril Jessop’s wives, Carolyn, fled the FLDS community on the Arizona-Utah line with her children in 2003 and wrote a best-selling book, “Escape.”
In all, 12 FLDS men have been indicted since Texas authorities raided the Yearning For Zion Ranch in April looking for evidence of underage girls forced in marriages and sex with older men.