25 Jul 2008

Catching 5 from West Texas polygamist ranch may require wide net

Dallas Morning News - July 23, 2008

by Emily Ramshaw

AUSTIN – Authorities began their pursuit Wednesday of five members of a West Texas polygamist sect accused of committing crimes against children but acknowledged the men – some of whom are believed to be influential elders who married underage girls – could be difficult to find.

By Wednesday evening, no arrests had been made, and state and county law enforcement officials said they had no timetable for completing them. Officials close to the investigation said the names weren't being released because the suspects are considered a flight risk – and some of the men haven't been seen in Texas since this spring's raid on the compound.

"They could literally be anywhere," said Sam Brower, a Utah private investigator who has worked on polygamy cases. "They have unlimited resources and thousands of people willing to help them hide."

State law enforcement officials acknowledged that the search could lead them to the polygamist group's headquarters on the Utah-Arizona border, or even outside of the country. Polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs – the only one of the men identified by authorities when the indictments were released Tuesday – was on the run for more than a year before he was apprehended in 2006.

"What we're doing right now is networking," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran. "We've got the indictments, the warrants in hand. We've got the Texas Rangers and the attorney general's office. It's really hard to say" how long the arrests will take.

The day after a grand jury brought sexual assault indictments against Mr. Jeffs and five followers, the Eldorado sect's de facto leader said the men would turn themselves in – if only the state would identify them.

"If they tell us who they are looking for, they will step up to the allegations," Willie Jessop said. "What we're afraid is that they won't tell us the names, and then they'll try to justify their actions by staging some hocus-pocus raid."

In April, child welfare investigators obtained an order to seize 440 children and about two dozen women from the Yearning for Zion ranch over allegations that the sect permitted a culture of sexual abuse and "spiritual" marriages between young girls and older men. The judge's order was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court months later, and most children were returned to their parents.

On Tuesday, the attorney general's office presented evidence against several sect members to a Schleicher County grand jury for the second time in two months – and left 10 hours later with charges against six men.

Five men, including Mr. Jeffs, were charged with felony sexual assault of a child, and one of those men was also charged with felony bigamy. A sixth man was charged with a misdemeanor: failing to report child abuse.

Investigators had long struggled to link men to their wives and children – the result, they said, of sect members giving them various names and ages. But DNA evidence was available for Tuesday's grand jury.

Mr. Jeffs, who at one time was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, has already been convicted of similar charges in Utah. The 52-year-old is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on separate charges.

Attorney General Greg Abbott said Tuesday that he plans to extradite Mr. Jeffs to Texas, but the sect prophet might not be moved until after he stands trial in Arizona, a law enforcement official said. Even if he is convicted in Texas, Mr. Jeffs would have to return to Utah to finish his sentence there.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but his spokeswoman said any extradition negotiations would be left up to the state's governor. Officials from the offices of both the Arizona and Utah attorneys general declined to comment on whether they were helping Texas track down the men in question.

Mr. Jessop said he's confident in the "character of the people from the ranch," and that they would "certainly step up to the allegations." He said the idea that anyone has fled the state in fear of indictments is outrageous; those who have families here have stayed in Texas and are not "running from anything."

"I'll tell you right now, anyone under these indictments will step up and answer the charges, to show the judicial system that we're not guilty of what they've accused us of," Mr. Jessop said. "We believe it is a strategy of the Texas government to try to raid us, to terrorize our families in the hopes they'd drive us out of Texas."

The Schleicher County grand jury will hear more evidence on the polygamy case in late August and could indict other individuals.

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for Texas Child Protective Services, said in light of Tuesday's charges, his agency is taking a closer look at the living situations of each child related to the indicted individuals.

"An indictment doesn't automatically trigger a removal," he said, "but we need to be comfortable that the children are protected."

What's next?

Today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will take testimony on coordinating the state and federal response to polygamy. Among those set to testify are Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have complained that no church members have been invited to participate.

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