Judge resolves final Texas polygamist custody case

July 23, 2009

San Anonio - The only child left in state custody after being swept from a polygamist sect's West Texas ranch was placed permanently with a relative on Thursday, ending one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther signed an order giving permanent custody of the 15-year-old girl to a relative who is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The girl is not allowed to communicate with jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs, whom she allegedly married when she was 12, but is otherwise allowed to stay with church members.

The girl was among 439 children taken from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in April 2008 after authorities responded to bogus calls to a domestic abuse hotline. Texas child welfare authorities removed all the children from the Eldorado ranch, and they were placed in foster care until the state Supreme Court ruled authorities had overreached.

The 15-year-old initially was returned to her mother, but she went back to foster care last August after her mother refused during a court hearing to guarantee the girl's safety. The girl has been allowed to live with a relative for several months, but Thursday's order made the arrangement permanent and resolved the last of the Child Protective Services' cases involving FLDS members.

"It's clearly a huge relief. We're extremely happy to get all the children back," said FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop. "It's been a long road for her, but we made it."

He said the girl has been much happier living with relatives, who understand the insular sect's culture, pioneer-style dress and religious beliefs.

Church documents seized from the ranch during a weeklong raid indicate the girl was married to Jeffs with her father presiding when she was barely 12. Her father, 73-year-old Fredrick "Merril" Jessop, has been indicted for conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony.

Jeffs, who communicated heavily with church members even after he was jailed on charges related to underage marriages in Utah, wrote the girl in November 2007.

"You are blessed to not have to wonder where you belong at your present age. You are delivered from many trials and temptations if you will stay close to me in the Lord. I would like to see a picture of you smiling sweet sent to me," he told her in a letter seized from the ranch and obtained by The Associated Press earlier this year.

Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the agency believes the FLDS children are safer because of the agency's intervention.

"The families now know that the state of Texas will not tolerate sexual abuse disguised as 'spiritual marriage,'" she said in a written statement.

A dozen men, including Merril Jessop and Jeffs, have been indicted on charges related to underage marriages of sect girls. Those criminal cases are separate from the child custody action.

Walther on Thursday held a hearing to set trial dates for all the sect men under indictment except Jeffs and the sect's doctor, who faces misdemeanor charges of failure to report child abuse. The first trial - that of Merril Jessop's 37-year-old son Raymond Jessop - is scheduled for Oct. 26. He faces charges of sexual assault of a child and bigamy for two separate alleged underage marriages.

Jeffs, who was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape, will be tried in Arizona on similar charges before facing trial in Texas.

The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

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