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A grand jury in west Texas indicted polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and a group of his followers. They're charged with sexual assault of a child. They're all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The group's ranch was raided earlier this year, leading to one of the largest child-custody battles in American history, and NPR's Wade Goodwyn has more from Dallas.
WADE GOODWYN: The grand jury, which was convened in Eldorado, Texas, added to Warren Jeffs' legal troubles yesterday. Jeffs has already been convicted in Utah of accomplice to rape. That case concerned a 14-year-old follower whom Jeffs married, against her will, to her 19-year-old first cousin. Jeffs is also facing legal action in Arizona for allegedly sexually assaulting a child.
Yesterday, the Texas grand jury of five men and seven women also indicted Jeffs and four of his followers on charges of sexual assault of a child. A fifth follower was indicted on three counts of failure to report child abuse.
Numerous women members of the FLDS were called to testify before the grand jury yesterday but took the Fifth, according to one member of the polygamist group identified as Ben by the Houston Chronicle. The women and girls were reportedly offered immunity by the state of Texas, but questions about whether that immunity would be honored by the federal government brought the proceedings to a four-hour standstill.
One of the teenagers, the 16-year-old daughter of Warren Jeffs, who was allegedly spiritually married to 34-year-old Raymond Jessop, was called before the court. So was Annette Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' first wife, and Jeffs' 17-year-old daughter, who has a one-year-old daughter by Raymond Jessop. According to the Houston Chronicle, the women quickly left the courtroom after refusing to testify.
The state of Texas has aggressively pursued the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Child welfare officials and state Judge Barbara Walther removed more than 400 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch before being reversed by appellate courts. The children were eventually returned to their parents.
Yesterday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott traveled to Eldorado to appear before the grand jury, a highly unusual move and a strong message about how seriously the state is taking this case. Abbott made it clear that the investigation is not over. The indictments issued today are part of an ongoing and continuing criminal investigation, he told the press. Another grand jury session is set for August.
The names of the indicted members of the FLDS were withheld, pending their arrest. There will be an aggressive effort to apprehend them, Abbott said. It took years to arrest Warren Jeffs, who was taken into custody after a fluke traffic stop outside of Las Vegas.
Convictions of underage sexual assault, bigamy and incest as a group have historically been difficult for prosecutors to win because of the reluctance of the alleged female victims to testify against their husbands. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have reportedly given Texas authorities different names and birthdates in an attempt to confuse their identities.
Warren Jeffs began moving his favorite followers out of their longtime homes in Hilldale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona into west Texas after those two states began ratcheting up legal action on the group. The Texas Rangers and child welfare officials raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch after reports that an underage teen was being sexually assaulted.
Since that raid in April, leaders for the group have vowed that it will no longer tolerate underage marriages. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.