15 Nov 2010

Hate mail from Mormon polygamists doesn't faze Texas lawmaker who crafted laws to protect girls from religious abuse

The Standard-Times San Angelo, Tx December 26, 2009

FLDS: Lawmaker proud of sect's ire

Hilderbran: ‘I’m going to protect girls’

Trish Choate | Standard-Times Washington Bureau

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Hate mail from a polygamist sect makes West Texas lawmaker Harvey Hilderbran happy and proud.

The state representative is probably in for more feedback from members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He authored new laws in 2005 to send a message to those who built and inhabit a small FLDS city in his district: Don’t mess with Texas.

The trials of 10 men from the Yearning for Zion Ranch compound near Eldorado are putting to test Hilderbran’s laws. But the Kerrville Republican already knew he wasn’t a favorite of the usually reclusive sect members who seek, for purity’s sake, to keep themselves separate from the world.

“They pray against me all the time,” Hilderbran said with a chuckle. “I just couldn’t be more prouder of being their enemy. I’m going to protect girls.”

The laws sharpened the teeth of state laws against sexual assault, underage marriage, bigamy and legally unrecognized “celestial” or “spiritual” marriages popular with the FLDS.

The amped-up statutes led to a sentence of 33 years in prison 13 more than under old laws for Allan Eugene Keate’s conviction of sexual assault Dec. 17 in a Schleicher County courtroom.

Keate could have gotten life in prison because of a bigamy enhancement in Hilderbran’s law. The maximum under the old statutes? Twenty years in prison and a fine as much as $10,000.

In the first FLDS trial this fall, Raymond Merril Jessop was also convicted of sexually assaulting a girl he’d taken as a spiritual wife, but he faced a lighter punishment.

A jury sentenced him to 10 years out of a maximum of 20 in prison. He was tried on a second-degree felony not a first-degree as Keate was — because his crime took place before Hilderbran’s laws, approved in 2005, became effective.

Eight more trials are scheduled through December 2010, and get tough on polygamists laws instigated after Hilderbran got wind of massive FLDS construction on the 1,700-acre ranch a few miles from Eldorado will touch many if not most defendants.

Charges against them range from aggravated sexual assault to bigamy to conducting a ceremony prohibited by law with a minor.

The last charge is courtesy of House Bill 3006, written by Hilderbran. It’s a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine as much as $10,000.

The new law also ratcheted up bigamy from a Class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. The charge can be enhanced to a second-degree felony if the victim’s 16 and to a first-degree felony if the victim’s younger than 16. And it raised the marriageable age with parental consent from 14 to 16 in Texas.

Hilderbran said his laws are making a difference. Texas Attorney General’s Office officials told him they have a bearing on 11 indictments.

The AG’s Office is leading the prosecutions and has been tight-lipped since the first trial began in October.

“We will continue moving forward to prosecute the ten other men indicted for crimes associated with the YFZ Ranch,” AG spokesman Jerry Strickland said in an e-mail. “We are unable to discuss specifics of the pending cases.”

The FLDS court cases are proving the changes to the law have been successful, Hilderbran said.

“We’re going to make sure that everybody knows the state of Texas is not going to tolerate this,” he said. “We’re going to protect our little girls and any girls that are residents from Texas from rape or sexual assault and forced marriages.”

The way FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop sees it, Texas is, indeed, intolerant.

The new laws, the historic April 2008 raid that yielded evidence against at least 11 FLDS men and many state officials’ attitudes toward his church all amount to religious persecution, pure and simple, in his view.

“What do they want the FLDS to do, find a Mayflower?” Willie Jessop said this week in a telephone interview. “It goes to the idea that if they don’t like you, let’s just pass laws to get rid of you.”

State Rep. Drew Darby, a Republican from San Angelo, said he faced off with Willie Jessop over just that issue in a hearing during the last legislative session in Austin.

“I said, ‘Pedophilia is not a religion,’” Darby said. “This is not about religious persecution. This is about older men and young women.”

More than 18 months since April 2008, the events of the raid don’t appear to be any less of a raw, aching wound for Willie Jessop.

“They terrorized hundreds of little children,” Willie Jessop said. “They just tried to take down an entire town over a hoax.”

Texas authorities served a warrant at the YFZ Ranch in search of an underage, abused girl in a marriage to an older man. They never found her, and the call was later determined to be a hoax.

But fearing widespread child abuse and forced marriages between underage girls and men, authorities removed 439 children from the ranch and allowed mothers to accompany them. The Texas Supreme Court later ordered state Child Protective Services to return the children to parents or guardians.

The warrant allowed Texas Rangers and other law-enforcement officers to seize boxes and boxes of church records, photographs, computers and other evidence coming into play during the trials.

The raid’s price tag for taxpayers was up to $12.8 million and still counting in March for various entities involved in the raid itself, housing and caring for the children and legal expenses.

“I don’t think the state of Texas will ever spend enough money to justify what they did on April 3 to an entire community,” Willie Jessop said.

The jury’s still out on the cost of the trials, even the first two.

It’s in flux as the AG’s Office waits for expenses submitted from staff members, experts and others, Strickland said.

FLDS estimates, which Willie Jessop said were obtained from public records, had put the public cost of the raid and subsequent legal work from the state seizing the children and for the trials of the FLDS men past the $30 million mark a year ago.

The FLDS spent around $12 million on legal fees, transportation costs and other expenses before CPS returned the children, Willie Jessop said.

Schleicher County rarely has a jury trial. But officials didn’t seem terribly worried about the cost — at least not yet — of 10.

The AG’s Office has been picking up most of the tab, Schleicher County Treasurer Karen Henderson said Wednesday.

“We’ve been real lucky,” Henderson said.

For the two trials already taken place, the county is out $22,190 for jury fees and $5,909 for meals for jurors and state officials, among other expenses, Henderson said.

“If they change venues, of course, that’s going to cost us a lot more,” she said. “But the state, they’ll probably help us out on that, too.”

Schleicher County Judge Charlie Bradley said the costs are no different from any jury trial for the county.

Hilderbran said he’s concerned about costs and hopes to see legislation approved to handle for expensive legal events for counties, especially rural counties where a capital murder case can break the bank.

He’s not done crafting new laws to squelch polygamist practices and sexual assault, either, he said. In the last legislative session this year, he and Darby, among others, co-authored a new bill to close loopholes.

The bill would have given school attendance officers more power, raised some penalties for not reporting child abuse, made it a misdemeanor for a doctor or midwife to fail to report births or file birth certificates, stiffened penalties for bigamy in some cases and done away with the statute of limitations on trying indecency with a child, sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child.

The bill failed to pass after controversy about a voter identification law sent the session off the rails.

Hilderbran said he plans to file new legislation in November 2010, and he’s widened the scope of his thrust from the FLDS to all children in group situations where abuse might be hidden in a community conspiracy.

Hilderbran wasn’t bothered by FLDS complaints lawmakers are trying to run the sect out of Texas.

“At the end of the day, if they leave the state because they can’t get away with it in Texas anymore, that’s not altogether a bad outcome,” he said.

Darby said the idea isn’t to keep people out of Texas.

“In fact, we want people to come to Texas,” he said. “We just want them to abide by the laws as they exist.”

The FLDS are “hardworking people,” Darby said. “I’m aware that the FLDS facility in Schleicher County continues to expand.”

Willie Jessop said he thinks the ranch’s population is at perhaps 70 percent to 80 percent of what it was before the raid.

“It’s my belief that the FLDS will carry on to the best of their ability,” he said. “We’ve been around 150 years. I expect we’ll be around in another 150 years.”

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