Polygamist Sect Focus of Rare Trial in Texas Town
SAN ANGELO, Texas – The first jury trial in more than a decade in the sleepy West Texas town of Eldorado involves an alleged polygamist and an accusation of sexual assault of an underage bride, a far cry from the occasional drunken driving cases that normally occupy the Schleicher County court system.
Attorneys on Monday will begin culling the largest jury pool ever called in Eldorado to try to find 14 people in a county of 2,800 who can set aside what they have heard about a polygamist sect whose alleged marriages involving underage girls triggered a police raid that swept more than 400 children into state custody last year.
Raymond Jessop, 38, will become the first man from the Yearning For Zion Ranch to go on trial here. He is charged with sexual assault of a child — an underage girl he allegedly married first — and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He is also charged with bigamy for allegedly marrying a second underage girl, but will be tried on that charge separately.
In all, 12 sect men have been charged with crimes ranging from failure to report child abuse to bigamy and sexual assault at the ranch, where women and girls wear braids and pastel prairie dresses. They have all denied wrongdoing.
The cases began after a woman in Colorado allegedly called a Texas domestic abuse hot line in March 2008 and pretended to be a teenage girl with a much-older husband who raped and beat her. State authorities swooped in, taking 439 children away from their sheltered lives and hundreds of boxes of documents and family photos to build their case. The Texas Rangers have acknowledged the hot line information was false, but the caller has never been charged.
Seating a 12-person jury and two alternates for Jessop's case may be a difficult because most residents of the tiny ranching community know each other, and national and international media coverage made the April 2008 raid impossible to ignore.
"Perhaps I should ask if anyone has not heard," state District Judge Barbara Walther said at a pretrial hearing. "It's extremely unlikely that we'll have anyone who will say they have not heard about this trial."
The YFZ Ranch, even before the raid, had been the talk of the town after members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints turned a patch of West Texas scrub into a compound that included gardens and a towering limestone temple.
Speculation grew about life in the secluded community when the sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list, accused in Arizona and Utah of arranging underage marriages with sect girls. Jeffs, who is revered as a prophet by FLDS members, was captured in 2006 and 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.
During the raid, some local residents gave food, supplies or other support to authorities while they were encamped in Schleicher County or to the women and children moved away from the ranch during the raid. Jessop's attorney, Mark Stevens, said it was likely potential jurors would be asked about any involvement in the raid.
The county sent summonses to 300 potential jurors — nearly one-sixth of the county's registered voters in hopes of seating a jury there. If lawyers can't get a full panel, the trial could be moved to an adjoining county. Tom Green County, home to much larger San Angelo, would be the likeliest choice.
The last jury impaneled in Eldorado, back in the late 1990s, decided the punishment of a drug possession defendant who pleaded guilty but wanted a jury to decide the penalty. Randy Mankin, editor of The Eldorado Success, the town's weekly newspaper, remembers because he was on that jury.
He got summoned again for Jessop's trial, as did his college-age son and his mother.
Few criminal cases go to trial in a county where charges are mostly related to drugs or alcohol, said Schleicher County Clerk Peggy Williams.
"There's not a whole lot to talk about," she said.
There's likely to be a lot more to talk about in Jessop's case. Stevens and Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols have agreed to consult with Walther throughout jury selection and testimony on a host of contentious issues — including the false report that triggered the raid, Jessop's alleged multiple marriages and an appellate court decision slamming the state for moving all the ranch children into foster care. The children were later returned to their mothers or other relatives, and none remain under the oversight of state officials.
Nichols said the trial is expected to last two weeks. The prosecution lists 59 potential witnesses including law enforcement and child welfare officials, two of Jessop's alleged wives, and former FLDS members.
Authorities have said little about the allegations against Jessop, but documents seized from the ranch indicate the assault charge stems from his alleged marriage to an underage girl. The girl later became pregnant and was in labor for several days in August 2005. But after Jessop consulted with sect leader Warren Jeffs, the girl wasn't taken to the hospital, allegedly out of fear that hospital authorities would discover her age and turn in Jessop.
"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," said Jeffs in one of the numerous alleged journal entries confiscated by authorities.
One of Jeffs' daughters allegedly married Jessop the day after she turned 15. The bigamy charge pertains to that relationship.
Under Texas law, generally, no one under 17 can consent to sex with an adult.
FLDS members, who believe polygamy brings glorification in heaven, historically have lived around the Arizona-Utah line, but the sect bought a ranch on the outskirts of Eldorado about six years ago. Hundreds of FLDS members, including many of the 439 children initially taken by child welfare authorities, have returned to the log cabin-style homes there.