Records show Warren Jeffs governed all aspects of life at polygamist ranch

Associated Press/April 5, 2009

Eldorado, Texas - It was a year ago that the outside world got its first glimpse beyond the battered green gate of the Yearning for Zion Ranch. And the view was mesmerizing:

Zavenda Jessop, 44, bakes cookies with her daughter, Annie, 4, at their home on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, with sons Russell (left), 6, and Zachery, 10, nearby.

Women in pioneer-style dresses, their hair swept up in buns. Men who married many times - sometimes, it was said, to teen girls. Children taken by authorities from their mothers, for fear that they might be abused.

Officials had come looking for an abused teenage girl named "Sarah," after calls to a domestic abuse hotline that were probably faked. They found that she didn't exist.

Since then, all but one of the 439 children removed in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history have returned to their families. About two-thirds are back at the ranch, says Willie Jessop, spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

But life at the YFZ Ranch has not returned to normal. The sect's prophet, Warren Jeffs, is not there - convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape, he awaits trial on a similar charge in Arizona and has been indicted in Texas for sexual assault of a child and bigamy.

Court documents and thousands of pages of other records obtained by The Associated Press offer a window into an industrious, prayerful community in which marriage was considered a mandatory ticket to heaven, and where legal marrying ages were secondary to matches ordained by Jeffs.

But more than anything else, these papers testify to a simple truth:

At the YFZ Ranch, Warren Jeffs controlled everything.

Chosen people

It was Jeffs' vision. His chosen people, he said, must go to Eldorado, a small town of 1,850, to buy the 1,700-acre Isaac's Ranch. Like much of the soil of West Texas, it was suitable only for raising goats and drilling for oil, but the people worked it hard.

In just five years, a new community arose known as the Yearning for Zion Ranch - an oasis with a gleaming white temple.

Jeffs, the 53-year-old son of the sect's previous prophet, gave teachings used to govern every aspect of life on the ranch, even when he was on the run from authorities and after he was jailed in 2007.

The construction of the temple and two dozen other buildings was funded with millions of dollars given by roughly 7,500 FLDS members who lived and ran businesses elsewhere. He admonished YFZ residents to live frugally since "everyone in this mission and on the lands of refuge is living off the labors of others."

The women sewed their own clothes, made with the pastel, patternless cloth as dictated by Jeffs.

The children went to school on the ranch and were taught to do chores, and while they were required to be quiet at meal times, Jeffs recorded some fatherly moments. Life was generally austere at the ranch. Toys, including simple wooden blocks, were forbidden by Jeffs as "selfishness."

FLDS members were taught, perhaps above all, that sexual purity was imperative. Attraction - and certainly contact with the opposite sex - were mortal sins.

Sex was meant only for procreation and should take place between a husband and one wife at a time.

To enter the afterlife, women must be bonded to a worthy man, and men had to take multiple wives for heavenly glorification.

The dynamics of multiple wives and children assigned to one husband were complicated. Jeffs told the men they should be able to kiss or hug any wife in front of any other wife without fear of jealousy, and he warned men against angling to inherit the wives of men cast out of the community.

But child welfare authorities and prosecutors say the FLDS theology of purity and plural marriage, combined with Jeffs' one-man rule, had a dark undercurrent. They say it made the marriage and sexual assault of underage girls regular practice in the sect.

Since the raid last year, the FLDS has said it will not sanction underage marriages. For years, Jeffs only acknowledged whether a girl had reached puberty, not her legal age.

"I say, in the name of the Lord, there is no underage marriage in a priesthood marriage, in celestial marriage. God has the right to rule. The Lord had me take these two underage girls on purpose, to show that I and we, this people, are with him, with God, not fearing man," he wrote in 2003.

One of those girls, Jeffs wrote, was lucky to have a husband at her age. The girl, allegedly married to Jeffs at age 12, is the lone ranch child who remains in foster care.

'A way of life'

Through his attorney, Michael Piccarreta, Jeffs declined to be interviewed.

Piccarreta said the charges are little more than religious persecution. He's trying to have the evidence seized in the raid excluded from Jeffs' Arizona trial, while other attorneys want to suppress it in the Texas cases.

Texas authorities insist that religion is not the issue.

"The Eldorado case was about the sexual abuse of girls and about the abuse of children who were taught that underage marriages were a way of life - and about adults who didn't stop the practice," said Patrick Crimmins, a Child Protective Services spokesman.

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