First FLDS sex assault trial starts on Monday
Polygamist sect leader's son is accused of having sex with minors
By TERRI LANGFORD
Oct. 24, 2009, 8:16AM
Prosecutors say one wife of Raymond Merrill Jessop, 38, was younger than 18 when she gave birth.
Raymond Merril Jessop, 38, is the first to face trial among 12 defendants who live at the sect's Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado and are accused of arranging or participating in underage marriages. His father, Frederick Merril Jessop is the senior leader of the FLDS because the group's prophet, Warren Jeffs, is jailed in Utah for forcing girls into underage marriages in that state.
Both also are among the defendants in the Texas case, and each will be tried separately.
“I kept hoping this trial would go away,” said Willie Jessop, a spokesman for FLDS, who is not related to the defendant. “We're disappointed that they're moving forward with their program. We keep thinking they're going to recognize this thing as a hoax.”
The indictments are the result of documents and evidence pulled out of the YFZ ranch by the Texas Department of Public Safety after a caller, now believed to be a hoaxer, called a women's shelter in San Angelo in late March 2008. The caller claimed to be a physically and sexually abused teen-wife named Sarah.
Officials with the women's shelter notified Texas Child Protective Services and caseworkers were sent to the ranch a few days later. After seeing several young girls who were pregnant or mothers, a decision was made to remove all 439 children from the ranch, a move that was later reversed by the Texas Supreme Court.
The children were removed from the ranch and placed in foster homes across the state — an action that cost Texas taxpayers at least $12 million, authorities said. Eventually reunited with the parents, the raid on the ranch and the subsequent legal battles over their welfare ignited a national debate over religious freedom and property rights.
Sex with minor girls?
The particular charges in this first trial involve one of Jessop's nine wives whom prosecutors believe was less than 18 years of age when she gave birth to Jessop's daughter. The child was 3 years old at the time of the raid, said Willie Jessop.
The fact that the sect members “married” teenage girls younger than 18 years of age is not in dispute. The Texas Attorney General's Office will have to prove to jurors that the sect's idea of marriage involved sex with minor girls, which will not be an easy task considering that many of the children do not have birth certificates.
Last month, Deputy Attorney General Eric Nichols, the lead prosecutor, notified the court he would be introducing a number of extraneous acts and offenses in Raymond Jessop's case.
The allegations include how Jessop moved a 26-year-old pregnant wife out of the master bedroom in 1999 and moved a 19-year-old wife in; how he placed a 16-year-old wife and unborn child in danger in 2005; how he allegedly conspired with Jeffs, the church's leader, to commit acts of sexual assault and transporting a minor across state lines in 2005; alleged illegal banking activity that same year; and his reported abandonment in 2007 of nine wives and 22 children.
Reporting for jury duty
Hundreds of FLDS members who had lived along the border of Arizona and Utah for years, began moving to Eldorado in 2002 after buying 1,700 acres just northeast of the tiny town. Before the raid, Texas officials believed there were about 55 children at the ranch.
Most of the 439 were born on the ranch.
The FLDS broke from the larger Mormon Church over the issue of polygamy.
Since the raid, the FLDS members have said they are committed not to engage in underage marriages. Asked Friday whether they were living up to that commitment, Willie Jessop said he had no way of knowing what other people do.
“I don't know that,” he said.
The Schleicher County District Clerk's Office has called 300 of the county's approximate 2,800 residents to report Monday as potential jurors for the trial in Eldorado, about 400 miles northwest of Houston.
It is not known how many of the 300 potential jurors are FLDS members.
State District Judge Barbara Walther will try to seat a jury in Eldorado.
But if it is not possible, it may be necessary to move the trial to nearby San Angelo.