2 Dec 2008

FLDS leader arraigned in a rural Texas court

Deseret News - Utah December 1, 2008

by Ben Winslow

The leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch appeared in a rural Texas court on a charge accusing him of performing an underage marriage.

Fredrick Merril Jessop, 72, was arraigned in Schleicher County court Monday on a charge of conducting a ceremony prohibited by law. An indictment unsealed by the courts when Jessop surrendered accuses the ranch leader of performing a marriage involving an underage girl to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs in 2006.

The girl's name is redacted from the indictment but court documents filed with an ongoing child custody case claim that Jessop married his 12-year-old daughter to Jeffs. That girl is currently back in foster care after a judge ruled her mother failed to protect her from abuse.

Leroy Johnson Steed, 42, appeared on a charge of sexual assault, bigamy and tampering with evidence. Steed was arrested in the early days of the April raid on the YFZ Ranch, and an indictment accuses him of trying to conceal "an electronic data storage device and its contents, and assorted papers contained in a trash bag, with intent to impair their availability as evidence in the investigation."

The men did not enter pleas, court clerks in Eldorado said Monday. Wendell Loy Nielsen, 68, did not appear for a scheduled arraignment on three counts of bigamy. Court hearings were also scheduled for Raymond Merril Jessop, Allan Eugene Keate, Michael Emack, Merril Leroy Jessop, Lehi Barlow Jeffs, Abram Harker Jeffs and Keith William Dutson Jr. Prosecutors made a minor change in the wording of some of the indictments and sought a list of defense expert witnesses, the attorney general's office said.

All of the hearings were continued until Jan. 12, court clerks said.

Only Jeffs has yet to be arraigned on criminal charges in Texas. He is currently in an Arizona jail awaiting trial there on sexual misconduct charges accusing him of performing underage marriages. In Texas, Jeffs has been indicted on sexual assault and bigamy charges.

Jeffs, 52, was convicted of rape as an accomplice in Utah for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He is also facing a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution stemming from his time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

A grand jury was convened in the aftermath of the YFZ raid outside Eldorado. In all, a dozen men are charged with crimes ranging from bigamy to sexual assault of a child to failure to report child abuse in connection with underage marriages. The grand jury is scheduled to meet a last time Dec. 16.

Hundreds of children were removed from the ranch by Texas authorities who responded to the ranch to investigate a phone call alleging abuse involving members of the Utah-based polygamous church. That call is believed to be a hoax, but authorities claim to have found other signs of abuse once on site.

The 439 children were returned to their families two months later when a pair of Texas courts ruled the state acted improperly, and the children were not at immediate risk of abuse. Only 36 children remain under court supervision in what was once the nation's largest child custody case. Texas child welfare authorities have said they "nonsuited" hundreds of children after finding either no evidence of abuse or their parents took appropriate steps to protect them.

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