Records show more Texas sect members wed minors

Associated Press/August 20, 2008

San Angelo, Texas - Five men from a polygamist sect raided by Texas authorities in April stand accused of sexually assaulting children, but they may not be the only ones.

Church documents disclosed as part of a separate child custody case over the last several months identify at least 10 other men as allegedly having married girls who were 16 or younger. The girls' fathers and stepfathers blessed the unions and sometimes even presided over ceremonies between other young girls and adult men, the documents show.

In all, about 20 underage girls, a few as young as 12, are identified in the documents as having married jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs or one of his followers.

Under Texas law, girls younger than 17 generally cannot consent to sex with an adult.

The Schleicher County grand jury that indicted five men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on sexual assault charges is scheduled to meet again Thursday. A sixth man was indicted on a charge of failure to report abuse.

It was unclear if charges would be brought against other FLDS members. Officials with the Attorney General's Office and the Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the criminal case other than to say that the investigation continues.

Underage marriages were not universal within the FLDS, but the marriage certificates, Jeffs' journal entries, photos and family listings show they were not isolated events, as the church had suggested.

"We didn't really have a sense of what was going on out there. We knew there was a potential for a problem," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who had visited the sect's Yearning For Zion Ranch during the years before the April raid. "The state has that evidence now, or I believe they do."

Over six days in April, Texas authorities collected more than 400 boxes of documents from the West Texas ranch as they sought evidence of girls being forced into underage marriages and sex.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, but documents filed over the past several months in the child custody case show that even men who have not been charged with abuse had married girls who were 15 or 16 in church ceremonies. Most of the men were in their 20s and 30s.

Four younger girls, ranging in age from 12 to 14, are shown in marriage certificates, photos and notes as married to 52-year-old Jeffs, who was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape for the marriage of a girl to her older cousin.

"I'm praying to become a heavenly comfort wife for you ... I feel so close to you," reads one note from a 12-year-old to Jeffs. Church records show she married him three months earlier.

Jeffs is among the five men charged in Texas, but he first faces trial on charges in Arizona, where he is currently jailed.

Texas investigators also were working about 50 possible bigamy cases. Being married to more than one person or even "purporting" to be married to more than one person is also illegal.

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 renounced polygamy more than a century ago. The FLDS has an estimated 6,000 members.

Rod Parker, a Utah attorney and spokesman for the church, said he believes the practice of underage marriages was "relatively limited" and says he believes FLDS members have been treated unfairly by Texas authorities.

He said no marriage ceremonies of any kind have been conducted in the last two years. In June, the church issued a statement saying it would not sanction marriages of anyone who is not of legal age.

Parker said the release of marriage certificates, love notes and photos as part of the child welfare case is designed to prejudice people against sect members.

Texas child welfare authorities were stung badly when the state Supreme Court ruled it had overreached in moving all 440 children from the ranch into foster care because it only presented evidence of five or six cases of abuse. The children were returned to their parents in June, though one girl - an alleged child bride of Jeffs - was put back in foster care Tuesday.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office prosecuted Jeffs and other polygamist sect cases, said prosecutions of members of the insular FLDS community will be difficult.

Even with marriage documents, birth certificates and DNA, prosecutors will have a tough time getting convictions without girls willing to testify. In some investigations where Utah authorities had similar documentation, girls who have had children claimed to have been artificially inseminated.

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