SAN ANGELO, Texas – A Texas judge ruled Friday that prosecutors could use thousands of documents seized during a weeklong raid of a polygamist sect's West Texas ranch in upcoming criminal trials even though search warrants were prompted by faked reports of abuse.
Attorneys for sect men charged after the April 2008 raid had sought to have the documents — including family photos, records of multiple marriages and journal entries by jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs — kept out of their trials because they were obtained using search warrants that relied on false reports to a domestic abuse hotline.
The defendants argued law enforcement officials were looking for an excuse to raid the Yearning For Zion Ranch and did little to check the reports before rummaging through the ranch's homes and other buildings. Prosecutors disputed that claim, saying law enforcement officials believed the reports were real at the time of the search.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther heard four days of testimony on the issue in May but didn't issue a ruling until Friday.
A dozen men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been indicted on charges including sexual assault of a child, bigamy and presiding over an unlawful ceremony. The first trial starts Oct. 26 in Eldorado, the tiny community where the ranch sits about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of here.
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. The defendants will use the argument for the basis of an appeal if convicted, he said.
"I have no doubt this thing will be ruled illegal in the long run," he said of the search.
The documents are not the only evidence in the case, but could be a substantial part of the Texas attorney general's prosecutions. Jeffs' narratives seized from the ranch detail many of his instructions to sect members and daily activities at the ranch, including an allegation against the first sect man to face trial, Raymond Jessop.
The 38-year-old pleaded not guilty to sexual assault of a child during a pre-trial hearing on Friday.
Prosecutors accuse him of sexually assaulting a teen who was allegedly one of nine wives. In 2004, the then-16-year-old girl was in child labor for three days but was not taken to the hospital because of fears about possible criminal prosecution, according to Jeffs' writings.
Raymond Jessop also has been indicted on a bigamy charge, but prosecutors decided to pursue that charge separately.
Jeffs, previously convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape, faces charges in Texas of sexual assault of a child and bigamy but will first be tried in Arizona on charges related to arranging underage marriages there.
The FLDS, historically centered on the Utah-Arizona state line, bought its West Texas ranch 6 years ago. The sect, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.