10 Oct 2008

Investigation of Texas Polygamist Sect Is Likely to Spill Into Utah, Arizona

The Wall Street Journal
October 11, 2008

by Stephanie Simon

Six months after they raided a polygamist sect's compound, Texas authorities have brought bigamy and child-abuse charges against members of the group as part of a criminal investigation that could soon expand to Utah and Arizona.

During the raid, Texas authorities took the controversial step of seizing more than 400 children, contending they were endangered by the group's practice of marrying young girls to much older men. All but one of the children have since been returned to their families.

But state officials have held on to the hundreds of documents and computer files they took during their search of the sprawling Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

Prosecutors in three states hope to use that evidence to press a wide range of criminal charges -- from tax evasion to sexual assault -- to break open the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which split from the mainstream Mormon church decades ago.

Lawyers for the sect did not return calls seeking comment.

Prosecutors say the seized evidence includes family photos and genealogies; lists of "spiritual marriages" between young girls and older men; detailed travel logs; and financial records for the sect's extensive business dealings.

The cache also includes sermons extolling underage marriage, apparently recorded by the group's self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs, and played for the children as part of their religious upbringing, according to a law-enforcement official.

The key question for prosecutors will be whether they can make criminal charges stick without cooperation from witnesses inside the sect.

Both Arizona and Utah have struggled for years to bring sexual-assault charges against men who take child brides. Utah did recently secure a conviction against Mr. Jeffs, the church prophet, for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin. He's now in prison.

But other cases have fallen apart. A few of the girls initially agreed to testify against their husbands, only to change their minds. When prosecutors called them to the stand, they swore under oath that they never had sex.

"There's so much pressure on these girls, you never really know what they're going to say," said Mark Shurtleff, the attorney general of Utah.

Other young brides have conceded that they did have sex with much-older men but testified that this occurred only during vacations out of state, depriving local authorities of jurisdiction.

"They'll do anything, even go to jail, to protect their husbands," said Terry Goddard, the Arizona attorney general. "Partly because they're afraid, partly because they're under orders, and partly because they just have a worldview that says don't cooperate, the real threat is in the outside world."

Texas authorities seized "very precise travel records," Mr. Goddard said, so the prosecution may be able to prove a given couple was in Texas at the time they conceived a child. Even so, Mr. Goddard said that juries may be reluctant to convict a man of sexual abuse without testimony from the victim. It's unclear if Texas authorities have obtained such testimony in depositions from the wives.

Without it, "we're talking about a very difficult challenge," Mr. Goddard said.

So far, Texas has secured indictments against nine men. Eight are charged with felony child abuse -- and face the prospect of life in prison -- for allegedly having sex with minors. None of the men has entered a plea, according to the court clerk's office in Schleicher County, Texas. The next court date is Oct. 27.

Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@wsj.com

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