Jul 29, 2008

5 from West Texas polygamy sect to be arraigned today in sex assault case

Emily Ramshaw
Dallas Morning News
July 29, 2008

AUSTIN — Five men from a West Texas polygamist sect will be arraigned this afternoon, a day after they turned themselves in on charges related to the sexual assault and “spiritual” marriage of underage girls.

Attorney General Greg Abbott said law enforcement officials and an attorney for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints negotiated the surrender, which came sooner than expected, officials acknowledged.

A sixth sexual assault suspect – sect prophet Warren Jeffs – has already been convicted of similar charges in Utah, is in jail awaiting trial in Arizona, and could still be extradited to Texas.

The arrests follow child welfare investigators’ seizure of 440 children and about two dozen women from the polygamist community in April, over allegations the sect permitted a culture of sexual abuse and marriages between young girls and much older men.

State courts overturned the decision to take children and some young women into state custody months later, and most children were returned to their parents.

Attorneys for the sect, who have expressed outrage over the raid and subsequent criminal charges, declined to comment on Monday’s arrests. Willie Jessop, who has been speaking on behalf of the West Texas community in Mr. Jeffs’ absence, could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Jeffs and four other men — Merril Leroy Jessop, 33; Raymond Jessop, 36; Michael Emack, 57 and Allan Keate, 56 — were charged with first-degree felony sexual assault of a child. The younger Mr. Jessop, who uses his middle name, is also charged with first-degree felony bigamy, which means one of his alleged wives is younger than 16. A sixth man, Dr. Lloyd Barlow, 38, faces three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse.

A grand jury received DNA evidence drawn from members of the sect before issuing the criminal charges.

All the men but Mr. Jeffs are in custody in Schleicher County, where their Yearning For Zion ranch is located. The men charged with felonies are all being held in lieu of $100,000 bond and face sentences ranging from 5 years to life in prison. Dr. Barlow’s bail is $5,000, and he faces a sentence of up to six months in prison.

It’s unclear whether the men will post bond today. Mr. Abbott, acknowledging the deep financial pockets of the Mormon breakaway sect, said that he still thought the $100,000 bail was sufficient and that authorities would keep close watch over any of the individuals who are released on bond.

Dr. Barlow is known as the chief physician at the sect’s compound outside Eldorado and is thought to have had information about young mothers there.

At least three of the other men, including Mr. Jeffs, are believed to have taken underage wives. A 2006 “dictation” from Warren Jeffs submitted as evidence in the case details the prophet choosing another wife for himself, as well as arranging the marriage of his own 16-year-old daughter to Raymond Jessop. He also chooses a bride for Leroy Jessop.

In the dictation, he refers to another man arrested Monday, noting that an FBI agent had “called Mike Emack right on Mike Emack’smobile phone, asking him if he would testify against me.”

“I don’t deserve any of my ladies,” Mr. Jeffs says in the dictation, “but I thank the Lord for every one of them, and yearn for every one of them to succeed, and all to be gathered.”

The Dallas Morning News does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.

Despite sect members’ vows last week that they would turn themselves in, state law enforcement officials had refused to estimate how long it would take to apprehend the men. They feared they had already fled to the FLDS’ home base — the Utah-Arizona border — or worse, left the country.

On Monday, Mr. Abbott confirmed that an attorney for the sect facilitated the surrender of the men, who arrived at the Schleicher County jail in two shifts. He said he didn’t know if the men had to be summoned from another state to turn themselves in.

Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said the men were booked peacefully.

The grand jury meets again next month, and Mr. Abbott said the “investigation of this whole issue is ongoing.”

Gerry Goldstein, a San Antonio-based attorney for the sect, said he was “not in a position to discuss the case.”

But as recently as last week, Mr. Jessop said he was confident in the “character of the people from the ranch,” and that they would “certainly step up to the allegations.” He said the idea that any sect members would flee the state in fear of indictments was outrageous.

“I’ll tell you right now,” he said, “anyone under these indictments will step up and answer the charges, to show the judicial system that we’re not guilty of what they’ve accused us of.”



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