10 Nov 2010

Polygamous sect leader guilty of sexual assault in forced 'spiritual marriage' of girl

The New York Times - November 5, 2009

Polygamist Sect Leader Convicted of Sexual Assault

ELDORADO, Tex. — One of the leaders of a polygamist sect was convicted Thursday night of sexually assaulting an under-age girl whom the church elders had assigned to him as one of his nine wives.

A jury of seven men and five women deliberated 2 hours 20 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty in the first trial of a dozen members of the Yearning for Zion Ranch just outside this rural hamlet in West Texas.

The defendant, Raymond M. Jessop, 38, seemed unperturbed as Judge Barbara Walther of State District Court read the verdict. Mr. Jessop was immediately handcuffed and taken into custody by the Schleicher County sheriff. He smiled and nodded to several other men in his religious group, who sat grave-faced as he was led away.

Mr. Jessop will be sentenced after a second hearing before the jury on Monday. He faces penalties ranging from 2 years’ probation to 20 years in prison.

His lawyer, Mark Stevens, declined to say if he would appeal, though the defense had argued in hearings before trial that the state illegally seized the church documents that were crucial to the case during a raid on the ranch in April 2008.

Mr. Jessop is one of the most prominent members of a breakaway sect that has at least four other communities in Arizona and Utah. He is close to Warren S. Jeffs, the self-styled prophet and leader of the sect.

Mr. Jeffs has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape, a charge related to his role in ordering the “spiritual marriage” of an under-age girl to one of his followers. He is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on similar charges and has been charged in Texas with sexual assault and bigamy.

The trial of Mr. Jessop offered a rare glimpse of the inner workings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that split from the Mormon Church. Followers believe polygamy brings heavenly rewards and treat Mr. Jeffs as a modern-day prophet.

The ranch first came to national attention a year and a half ago when the Texas authorities descended on it, seeking a girl who had complained in a telephone call to a San Angelo women’s shelter that she was being sexually abused. The girl was never found, and the Texas Rangers acknowledge that the tip was a hoax.

But in the course of executing search warrants, social workers and the Rangers uncovered evidence that at least a dozen girls had been coerced by church elders to serve as wives to older men. Seven had borne children.

The prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols, put several Rangers on the stand along with a former member of the church to introduce several church documents seized from a vault on the ranch.

Since the woman said to be the victim, who is now 21, did not testify, Mr. Nichols used the documents, along with her photo album, to prove she lived with Mr. Jessop as one of his wives and was impregnated by him when she was 16.

The state’s case also rested heavily on genetic evidence that showed there was a 99.9 percent chance Mr. Jessop was the father of the child, who is now 4.

In his closing argument, Mr. Nichols attacked the theory that the teenager had consented to be Mr. Jessop’s wife. “Any act of sexual assault is a horrendous crime,” he said, “but an act of sexual assault on a child is of such an extreme nature we don’t even consider whether the victim was able, much less did, consent.”

One of the most damning pieces of evidence presented in court was a written record of Mr. Jeffs’s instructions in August 2005 not to take the girl to a hospital even though she had been struggling in labor for three days at a clinic on the ranch.

“I knew the girl, being 16 years old, if she went to the hospital, they could put Raymond Jessop in jeopardy of prosecution as the government is looking for any reason to come against us there,” Mr. Jeffs was quoted as saying.

Some of the most revealing testimony came from another witness for the prosecution, Rebecca Musser, a former member of the church who had been married to Rulon T. Jeffs, the sect’s founder and the father of Warren Jeffs. She left the church in 2002 after the elder Mr. Jeffs died.

Ms. Musser testified that Mr. Jeffs had controlled every aspect of the women’s lives, including how they dressed and what they ate. He also controlled whom they married and when.

“Age was not a factor,” she said. “It was when the prophet deemed she was worthy.”

Mr. Stevens mounted a technical defense, arguing that the state could not prove the crime had taken place in Texas since the evidence it had was purely circumstantial. He did not present any witnesses.

“It’s dangerous when we start trying to convict people based on documents and we are not sure where those documents came from,” he said.

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Google News - Associated Press November 5, 2009

Witness: FLDS men lead all aspects of sect life


ELDORADO, Texas — Women in a polygamist sect were taught that their fathers or husbands and the sect's prophet had the right to direct every aspect of their lives, a former member testified Wednesday in the child sexual abuse trial of a current sect member.

"As a woman you have no direct connection to God," said Rebecca Musser, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "Every area of our lives was directed by the church and their teachings."

Musser left the church in 2002 and never lived at the Yearning For Zion Ranch, the site of a state raid in April 2008 that led to the trial of 38-year-old Raymond Jessop, who is accused of marrying an underage girl in the sect. Prosecutors asked Musser to talk about her experience in the FLDS and how church records are kept.

Jessop is the first man from the sect to face trial since the raid. The girl he is accused of marrying when she was 15 had been "reassigned" to Jessop from his brother, according to records seized by authorities. If convicted, Jessop faces 20 years in prison.

The prosecution is relying heavily on records and dictations by jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs that were seized from the ranch. In one dictation, Jeffs indicates that he advised people at the ranch to avoid taking the girl to the hospital even though she had been in labor for days.

"I knew that the girl being 16 years old, if she went to the hospital, they could put Raymond Jessop in jeopardy of prosecution as the government is looking for any reason to come against us there," wrote Jeffs, who became the sect's prophet after his father's death in 2002.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther ruled that jurors would only see a portion of that statement. Many of the documents were heavily redacted with some pages almost completely blacked out to avoid discussions of plural marriage. Jessop, who authorities say had nine wives, is charged with bigamy but will be tried on that charge separately.

Prosecutors sought to establish with Musser that the records were kept as a normal part of church business in an effort to make them admissible in the trial. While ordering some sections redacted, Walther agreed the records taken from enormous concrete vaults in the sect's towering temple and an annex building should be allowed.

Musser, who was once married to Jeffs' elderly father and later testified against Jeffs at his trial in Utah, said Jeffs kept detailed accounts of his interactions with FLDS members because he believed God would hold him accountable.

"He is to teach and govern the people and record it all, because in their culture, he has to answer to God," she said. "Every area of our life was governed by the dictates of the prophet."

Besides Jeffs' teachings, other records outlining family trees, marriages and baptisms also were carefully kept because the FLDS believe they'll be needed to receive credit in heaven, Musser said.

Jeffs was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape. He is jailed in Arizona awaiting trial on charges related to underage marriages there and faces sexual assault and bigamy charges in Texas.

Walther said late Wednesday that the trial of Jessop could wrap up Thursday afternoon.

In all, 12 men from the sect have been indicted on charges ranging from failure to report child abuse to sexual assault. The 439 children taken from the ranch and placed in foster care after the raid have all been returned to their parents or other relatives, but the seized documents resulted in the criminal charges.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and does not recognize the FLDS. Historically based around the Arizona-Utah state line, the FLDS bought a ranch about six years ago in Eldorado, about 150 miles northwest of San Antonio, and began building massive homes and a towering temple.

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The Salt Lake Tribune

Closing arguments expected today in polygamist's sex assault trial

by Brooke Adams

Eldorado, Texas » Attorneys will hear closing arguments today in the trial of a polygamous sect member whom the state alleges sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl in 2004.

Fifty-first District Judge Barbara Walther told jurors Wednesday that "we are getting very close" to the final stage of Raymond Merril Jessop's trial and asked them to bring a packed suitcase in case lengthy deliberations require them to be sequestered. The jury heard from three witnesses before recessing, including a law professor who said Jessop could not have legally married a second person because he was already married and a former FLDS member who testified about the importance of record-keeping in the sect.

The state alleges Jessop sexually assaulted the now 21-year-old woman in 2004, several months after she became his spiritual wife at the Yearning For Zion Ranch, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The Yearning For Zion Ranch is home to members of the FLDS sect. It was raided by Texas Rangers and state child welfare officials in April 2008, and that is when -- prosecutors say -- they uncovered evidence against Jessop and others.

The state alleges Jessop sexually assaulted the now 21-year-old woman in 2004, several months after she became his spiritual wife.

John "Jack" Samson, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in family law, testified Wednesday that because Jessop was legally married to another woman in Utah in 1994, the alleged victim could not have been his spouse in 2004.

That is one of four elements of the crime the state set out to prove a week ago to make its case against Jessop. Using birth certificates, prosecutor Eric Nichols also has shown the alleged victim was under the legal age of consent in Texas when the alleged offense occurred. DNA experts testified that Jessop is the father of a child the alleged victim gave birth to in 2005.

Using the alleged victim's photo album, the state showed the jury that she and Jessop were at the ranch in 2004, though not specifically at the time she allegedly became his spiritual wife or conceived a child.

The most interesting testimony Wednesday came from a woman who once was married to the former FLDS prophet, Rulon T. Jeffs, about the spiritual significance of record-keeping.

Musser told the jury about attending and then teaching at Alta Academy, a private school formerly operated by the FLDS church in the Salt Lake Valley.

Musser, 33, speaking in a soft voice that was barely audible even with a microphone, told the jury she was 19 when she was married to the elder Jeffs, father of now FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs.

Musser left the FLDS community in 2002, two months after Rulon T. Jeffs died, and now lives in Idaho. She is a sister of Elissa Wall, and testified in 2007 during the criminal trial of FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs in Utah.

She told the Schleicher County jury the prophet controlled "every area of our lives," she said, from clothing to hair styles to how followers interacted with one another.

For women, getting married was "the most important step" in their lives, Musser said.

"Age was not a factor," she said. "It was when the prophet deemed she was worthy."

Musser said church members are taught to keep detailed records of marriages, blessings, births, baptisms and other significant church-related events necessary to achieve exaltation in the afterlife.The events are noted in a "Book of Remembrance" which corresponds with a "Book of Life" kept in heaven.

The prophet, who is accountable to God, is responsible for ensuring those records are "absolutely and impeccably accurate," Musser said.

The defense has argued to limit use of those records , which include dictations made by Warren S. Jeffs found in a vault at the Temple Annex on the ranch. Walther ruled that as church records the documents are not hearsay -- though defense attorney Mark Stevens noted at one point that a record of an exchange between Jeffs and the Lord poses "more than the standard hearsay."

Walther allowed most of the documents to be admitted after the state heavily redacted information not related to Jessop and his alleged victim.

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