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Polygamous sect's temple secret haven for sex with underage brides?

Published April 10, 2008 12:22 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SAN ANGELO, Texas - Adult FLDS men were having sex with underage brides inside the massive limestone temple at the polygamous sect's Texas ranch, a confidential informant told authorities.

A search warrant unsealed Wednesday by a Texas judge said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran learned that information from a confidential informant he has worked with for several years. The warrant says the informant is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

On Saturday, as a sweeping raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado was entering its third day, the informant spoke to Doran and made the allegation about the temple. Authorities used a hydraulic tool to pry open locked doors to the white stone sanctuary late that night, after FLDS members objected to nonmembers entering the space.

In a Wednesday court filing, FLDS attorneys pointed out the temple was not listed in the initial search warrant signed by the judge. The filing said that members James Jessop, Rulon Keate and Luke Jessop were "present and praying" in front of the temple as officers dragged them out of the way. It also says other officers fired weapons into woods near the temple as its gates were opened.

The affidavit was from Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long, who reported being at the ranch that evening and observing multiple beds inside the temple; the linens on one bed were "disturbed" and Long found a long hair, apparently from a female.

The document was filed in support of the state's request for a second warrant to search the ranch. That warrant was signed Sunday at 10:12 p.m. by Tom Green County District Judge Barbara Walther.

The affidavit also describes conversations between two Child Protective Services workers and a half dozen young mothers and girls who knew young mothers within the group. One CPS worker said she asked one girl her age; the girl looked at her husband, who responded, "You are 18."

The girl parroted the answer, according to the document. The girl also said she is the man's fourth wife and has an infant.

Another girl told a CPS worker she did not know her own age but acknowledged having a two-year-old and being pregnant. The CPS worker said an 8-year-old later told her the girl is under 16 and has four children.

The judge signed the initial warrant Thursday evening, giving Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officers permission to search the ranch for a 16-year-old girl who called the New Bridge Family Shelter in San Angelo on March 29 and March 30 and said she was being physically and sexually abused by her husband.

Since then, authorities have removed 419 children, accompanied by 139 mothers. But authorities say they still have not located the girl who made the calls - which FLDS attorneys say raises questions about the legality of the search.

On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said the investigation at the ranch is "close to wrapping up."

Walther unsealed the documents during a two-hour hearing that attracted news media from across the country.

The judge ruled that three sect members - Lyle Jeffs, Merrill Jessop and Isaac Jeffs - have the legal right to challenge the massive search. Assistant District Attorney Allison Palmer had argued that sect members did not have legal standing because no arrests have been made.

The judge also said religious documents will be culled out of the items seized.

She agreed to seal the seized evidence and to appoint a special master to review hundreds of boxes of documents and computer hard drives taken from the ranch, to determine what material is sacred or is private communication between sect members and their attorneys.

Attorney Gerald Goldstein and his partners, based in San Antonio, are representing Lyle Jeffs and the FLDS church. Nathan Butler and Evan Pierce-Jones, both of San Angelo, are representing Jessop and Isaac Jeffs.

At least five other attorneys sat at the FLDS table, including Richard Wright, who helped represent sect leader Warren S. Jeffs last fall. Warren Jeffs was convicted in September in Utah of rape as an accomplice. The charge was based on a marriage he conducted in 2001 that involved a 14-year-old girl who protested the marriage.

Lyle and Isaac Jeffs are his brothers. Court documents say Lyle Jeffs is the bishop of the Short Creek Stake in Utah and Arizona, and that Merrill Jessop is the bishop for the FLDS at the YFZ Ranch. Goldstein also said two of Lyle Jeffs' children were taken during the raid.

Goldstein said the men are no longer seeking to quash two state search warrants used so far by officials, conceding the point is moot because a federal search warrant has been issued. An FBI spokesman in Dallas declined to discuss the agency's work at the ranch.

The judge, however, agreed that the state needs to quickly provide the FLDS attorneys with a list of items seized as evidence under the search warrants. In its latest filing, the sect also kept alive its arguments questioning the legality of the search.

Goldstein declined to speak to reporters after the hearing, saying all his comments will be made in the courtroom.

FLDS members attending the hearing included Helaman Barlow, a deputy with the Colorado City, Ariz., town Marshal's Office, and prominent member Willie Jessop.

brooke@sltrib.com