AUSTIN, Texas – Texas wants ownership of Warren Jeffs' massive polygamist ranch where prosecutors say the convicted sect leader and his followers sexually assaulted dozens of children, the state attorney general's office said Wednesday.
A judge will determine whether to grant the state control of the 1,600-acre property owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The sect bought the land for more than $1.1 million in 2003, according to court records. The affidavit, filed Wednesday, does not provide a current value for the Yearning for Zion Ranch. Texas has spent more than $4.5 million in prosecuting the cases against Jeffs and 10 of his followers.
Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the warrant begins the final chapter in the state's five-year-old case against Jeffs.
"This is simply the next step," Strickland said.
Texas Rangers raided the ranch in April 2008, following a call to a domestic abuse hotline that turned out to be false, and took 439 children into state custody. Jeffs last year was convicted of sexually assaulting two minors whom he described as his spiritual wives. At trial, prosecutors presented DNA evidence to show he fathered a child with one of those girls, aged 15.
Jeffs, 56, is serving a life prison term in Texas. He has continued to try to lead his roughly 10,000 followers from behind bars. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
It's not known how many people still live at the secluded Eldorado ranch located about 200 miles west of San Antonio, but the seizure warrant does not require them to leave. The property is so far off the main roads that only helicopters or planes can provide a true glimpse of the ranch.
Strickland said it was too early to speculate about what the state would do with the property if given ownership. The group will have a chance to contest any seizure.
Jeffs' most devoted followers consider him God's spokesman on earth and a prophet, but they were absent from court for the bulk of his criminal trial.
Paving the way to Jeffs' conviction were his own "priesthood records" — diary-like volumes, covering tens of thousands of pages, in which Jeffs recounts his sexual encounters and records even his most mundane daily activities.
Prosecutors cite the records in the 91-page affidavit filed Wednesday.
"This will be a major gathering place of the saints that are driven," Jeffs wrote. "You can see it is well isolated. In looking at this location, we can raise crops all year round. There is no building code requirements. We can build as we wish without inspectors coming in. There is a herd of animals that the storehouse needs, that we can nourish and increase."
Under Texas law, authorities can seize property that was used to commit or facilitate certain criminal conduct, such as a home being used as a stash house for drugs. Strickland said he didn't immediately know where this attempted seizure would rank among the state's biggest efforts to claim ownership of criminal property.
In the affidavit, prosecutors allege that sect members illegally structured financial transactions and that Jeffs personally toured the ranch before the land was purchased.
Jeffs wanted the "a rural location where the FLDS could operate a polygamist compound where the systemic sexual assault of children would be tolerated without interference from law enforcement authorities," according to the affidavit.
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