26 Oct 2010

FLDS spokesman, legislators clash at hearing

Go San Angelo - April 15, 2009

By Paul A. Anthony

AUSTIN - Legislators hammered the spokesman for a polygamous sect during his appearance Tuesday before a Texas House committee, making clear they believe underage marriages took place at the YFZ Ranch and that FLDS members living there lied repeatedly about it and obstructed the state's investigation of alleged sexual abuse.

The House Human Services Committee was reviewing the lessons to be learned from last year's raid on the Schleicher County compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It ripped into Willie Jessop for his professed ignorance about whether the sect sanctioned marriages between underage girls and adult men at the ranch.

"I don't believe you don't know," committee Chairman Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, told Jessop at one point. "You're a smart person. You have been with these people on this journey over the past 12 months. I just don't believe you."

Jessop said it was the first time the sect has been invited to the Capitol to provide its side of the complex and controversial case. His appearance led to tense moments as Rose and state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, placed him under oath after his initial recalcitrance to answer Rose's questions.

Using evidence seized at the ranch during the weeklong raid that began April 3, 2008, Darby and state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, questioned Jessop's argument that the raid was spawned from a known hoax perpetrated by the sect's enemies and former members.

"I don't think any soldier bleeding for his country is fighting for this," Walle said, holding up photos seized at the ranch showing Jeffs deeply kissing an alleged 12-year-old bride. "I think you know what's going on. You just don't wish to acknowledge the issue."

"What I wish was going on," Jessop replied, "was due process."

Darby quoted Jeffs' own dictations in which the self-styled prophet said no marriage is underage if it is appointed by God. He questioned whether the sect truly meant it when its members said after the raid that they would not marry underage girls to adult men.

It was a common theme for Darby, a staunch supporter of the raid. He also asked Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein how she could assure legislators that the children are safe now that all but one of the 439 removed from the ranch have been dropped from the case.

"They've just signed something," Darby said, referring to the service plans parents were required to sign, "and (the children) have been left in this environment."

Heiligenstein defended every aspect of her department's decision-making over the past 13 months - from the initial raid to the mass removal to the more recent wave of non-suits - offering only one example of a decision she would make differently.

Instead of allowing mothers to remain with the children during the initial removal and separating them later, Heiligenstein said, the department should have removed the children alone, as it does in other cases.

"Removal of the children with the mothers was probably not the optimal plan, given the organized deception that was going on," she said. "It impeded the investigation. It certainly complicated the situation."

That deception, Heiligenstein said, included moving children from building to building on the ranch and even switching clothes between children at Fort Concho and the San Angelo Coliseum.

That claim made some FLDS members in attendance shake their heads.

Legislators heard an entirely different version of events from Heiligenstein's testimony, which tracked closely to her broad defense of the raid in an anniversary news conference April 3.

Jessop also tracked similarly to his many public comments denouncing the raid as unnecessary and damaging.

"What went wrong is very clear," Jessop said. "This department didn't want to hear the truth. ... It just wanted justification for what it did."

Jessop's comments about DFPS sparked a rebuke early in his testimony, when he said of Heiligenstein's remarks that she would call for the raid again: "The only person who would say that would be Adolf Hitler."

Rose swiftly cut him off.

"You're welcome here," the chairman told Jessop, "and I'm glad you're here, but you're not going to call the department Adolf Hitler."

It wasn't the last standoff between Rose and Jessop, who attempted three times to deflect Rose's questions about whether underage marriages were allowed inside the compound.

"Did you tolerate the marriage of underage girls on your ranch," Rose said to him, "to adult men on your ranch?"

"Let's put it simple," Jessop replied the first time. "When you target a group ..."

Rose cut in, repeating his question, after which Jessop paused for 10 seconds.

"I think it'd be a lot more in the fairness of the question," he finally said, "by asking you this question ..."

Rose again interrupted Jessop.

"I asked you a question," he said, and repeated it again.

"Let's make it simple," Jessop replied. "I don't live at the ranch. I don't know."

When Rose noted Jessop was speaking on behalf of the parents who lived at the ranch, the spokesman replied: "I'm no more aware of what happens at the ranch than you are in your neighborhood."

That led Darby to ask Rose whether Jessop was under oath, after which Rose asked Jessop to sign a witness affirmation form, placing him under oath.

Rose then asked the question a fourth time.

"That's not a fair question, sir," Jessop said. "It's not."

"If you're unable to answer that, you're unable to answer that," Rose replied, "but I want you to answer the question."

"Anything I say about what was going on at the ranch before I got there would be inappropriate for me to speculate on at this time," Jessop replied, leading to Rose's comments questioning the spokesman's truthfulness.

The exchange led other FLDS members to reject testifying.

"It appears this committee is not interested in helping us or protecting us in any way," Zavenda Jessop told the committee, "so we have not chosen to testify."

"I disagree with your assessment," Rose replied, "but I respect your opinion."

Ultimately, the middle road between the two sides was provided by Susan Hays, a Dallas appellate attorney who represented an FLDS toddler.

In her testimony, Hays said the agency would have been justified in removing all the teen and preteen girls, but that it failed to do basic research into the group that could have massively cut down on the confusion and taxpayer expense before undertaking the raid.

Hays, like other attorneys representing mothers and children in the case, expressed frustration over the state's seeming unwillingness to provide information about or access to their clients.

That led to one moment of levity in an otherwise lengthy and tense hearing when she was asked what needs to happen to make the process smoother should another mass raid take place.

"CPS," Hays said, "needs an attitude adjustment."

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