3 wanted members of FLDS surrender

The men face charges related to underage marriage

San Antonio Express-news/November 24, 2008

Austin - A leader of a West Texas polygamist group and two other church members surrendered to authorities Monday after being indicted earlier this month in connection with underage marriages at the ranch where they live.

Frederick "Merril" Jessop, 72, believed to be the most senior leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints outside Eldorado, was charged with one count of conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony, a third-degree felony.

He dropped out of sight after authorities raided the group's ranch in April, though an FLDS spokesman said he was never in hiding.

Wendell Loy Nielson, 68, who court records say has been simultaneously married to 21 women, was charged with three third-degree felony bigamy charges.

Leroy Johnson Steed, 42, was charged with sexual assault of a child, bigamy and tampering with physical evidence.

The three men, who were booked and released on bail, were indicted by a Schleicher County grand jury on Nov. 12.

Twelve people from the Eldorado ranch have now been charged in connection with alleged underage unions. The group is not affiliated with mainstream Mormonism, which denounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the group, on Monday called the state's case baseless and said it was concocted to justify its failed child custody case. In April, acting on a tip, Texas Child Protective Services seized more than 400 children at the ranch, alleging that the girls were being sexually abused or at risk of being sexually abused and that the boys were being groomed to perpetuate the practice of underage marriage.

Two months later, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state overreached and ordered the children returned to their parents. CPS has since dropped its oversight of most of the children.

Child welfare authorities are expected back in a San Angelo family courtroom today to seek access to a 5-month-old baby they believe was born to an underage mother wedded to an adult man. CPS said in court papers it wanted the child "for inspection, observation and genetic testing."

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