ELDORADO, Texas – Texas authorities began looking Wednesday for five indicted followers of jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, men accused of sexual assault of a child, bigamy and failing to report child abuse.
"Our office does have warrants in hand and indictments in hand," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, whose tiny western Texas department will work with Texas Rangers and prosecutors to arrest the men.
A grand jury indicted Jeffs and four followers Tuesday on charges of felony sexual assault of a child. Another was indicted for failing to report child abuse. One of the followers was also indicted for bigamy, but the identities of the men and details of the accusations remained under seal until the men are arrested.
Jeffs, already convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice and awaiting trial in Arizona on other charges related to underage marriages, is accused of assaulting a girl in Texas in January 2005.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office is acting as the special prosecutor in the case, vowed Tuesday that authorities would make an aggressive effort to find the accused members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has traditionally been centered around the Arizona-Utah line.
Members are often nomadic, moving between jobs and church member-controlled sites. They bought the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado five years ago but have additional residences scattered around the West and Canada.
Doran, who cultivated a relationship with the ranch's residents before the April 3 raid, said it's hard to tell whether the indicted men are still in Texas.
"I haven't personally seen them since the raid took place," he said.
Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Rangers, would only say Wednesday that the Rangers would aid prosecutors in seeking the indicted men.
FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop said Wednesday that law enforcement officials had not yet disclosed who they were looking for or tried to enter the ranch, but he said members would cooperate.
"We don't believe their evidence is credible. We don't believe they obtained it legally, but we'll stand up in court and face the allegations," he said. "We believe in our innocence."
Jessop said he believes the criminal prosecutions are designed to try to justify the since-discredited decision to place more than 400 children from the ranch into foster care and to justify the raid itself — which was prompted by calls now believed to be a hoax.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled child welfare officials had overreached in placing all the children who lived at the ranch in foster care because they didn't show any more than a handful of teenage girls were abused. The vast majority of the children taken were younger than 6 or boys.
Law enforcement and prosecutors have said their investigation continues. The grand jury is expected to meet again Aug. 21.
"It's a large investigation and it's going to take some time to go through this," said Doran.
But he described the indictments as helping to tell "the other side of the story" after the child custody case debacle.
Child Protective Services is also continuing its investigations, even with the roughly 440 children returned to their parents six weeks ago.
Agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said investigators will look at the living circumstances of the children associated with the men who were indicted and determine if they are safe.
"We know where each child is and we know the household situation, who lives there, et cetera," he said Wednesday, the same day some parents began court-ordered parenting classes. "We'll take a closer look at each one of those family situations to verify that the appropriate protections are in place."
The children of those who were indicted would not have to go back to foster care if child welfare officials believe their current living situation doesn't put them at risk, Crimmins said.
Under Texas law, a girl younger than 17 cannot generally consent to sex with an adult.
Bigamy is also illegal in Texas, and although FLDS plural marriages were not licensed by the state, the law contains a provision outlawing the act of "purporting to marry" more than one person.
The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glory in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially renounced polygamy more than a century ago and has sought to distance itself from the FLDS.