HOUSTON – A polygamist sect leader's daughter, who was a fugitive for nearly 20 years, expressed remorse as she pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge relating to the shotgun killings in Texas of an 8-year-old girl and three sect members who had left the church.
Jacqueline LeBaron, who had initially faced murder and other charges, now only faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct religious beliefs as part of an agreement with prosecutors. The plea comes four days before the 45-year-old's trial was set to begin.
LeBaron, the daughter of Utah polygamist Ervil LeBaron, has been held without bond since she was extradited last year from Honduras after being a fugitive since her 1992 indictment. She had faced 14 counts, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering conspiracy. The most serious charges she had faced carried a potential sentence of up to life in prison.
"I'm very sorry this happened," Jacqueline LeBaron, handcuffed and wearing a green prison jumpsuit, told U.S. District Judge Sim Lake before entering her plea.
Lake scheduled sentencing for Sept. 8.
Defense attorney David Adler said his client was "more of a victim" because of the difficult life she endured growing up in her father's polygamist cult and her belief she could not say no to playing a small role in the killings.
"I am not saying she did not commit a crime," Adler said. "But we're hoping the judge takes into account that she couldn't say no. She was in fear of her safety."
Jacqueline LeBaron was among six family members charged in the killings. Authorities say she and her family were following their sect's doctrine of blood atonement, in which defectors were killed.
During the hearing, she said she is being treated for bipolar disorder and that she felt "nervous" but also "OK."
The U.S. attorney's office said in a news release that Jacqueline LeBaron assisted the siblings in the plot by giving them travel money. U.S. attorney spokeswoman Angela Dodge said her Houston office would not comment further on the case.
During the hearing, Jacqueline LeBaron said that while living in Mexico in May 1998, she got a call from her brother William, who ordered her to give $500 to their sister Cynthia so she could travel to Houston. The money came from proceeds the LeBarons got from stealing trucks in the U.S. and then selling them in Mexico, Adler said.
"There was a group of siblings in Texas. (Cynthia) was to join them. She was to look for some people who would be punished," she said.
The individuals who were being "punished" were Ed Marston and brothers Mark and Duane Chynoweth, three former church members who had left after having a falling out with the sect.
"They were punished over disagreement on how the church should be run," Jacqueline LeBaron said.
In June 1988 in Houston, Mark Chynoweth was fatally shot three times by one of her brothers at one location while at a second location, two other siblings shot and killed Duane Chynoweth and his 8-year-old daughter Jenny. Authorities said the girl was killed because she witnessed her father's death.
At about the same time, Marston was shot at an appliance business in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He died of his injuries about four hours later. All the victims were shot in the head.
Authorities say the victims had been ordered killed by Aaron LeBaron, the leader of the LeBaron family.
Three other LeBaron family members were convicted on charges including civil rights violations and witness tampering in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison. Another was convicted four years later of ordering the deaths and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The youngest, who was 16 at the time of the killings, pleaded guilty in the child's death and served five years in prison.
Jacqueline LeBaron's father died in 1981 in Utah state prison, where he was serving a life sentence for masterminding the 1977 murder of Rulon Allred, the leader of another polygamist group. He was the leader of the Church of the Lamb of God, based on distorted early Mormon teachings and disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church.