Polygamist Sect Members Get Prison on Bigamy Charges

Associated Press/April 15, 2010

San Antonio - Two members of a polygamist sect were sentenced to prison Thursday on bigamy charges, the first legal finding of multiple marriages in a community that has mostly dodged questions about the practice.

Lehi Barlow Jeffs pleaded no contest to bigamy and sexual assault of a child in San Angelo, avoiding a trial that had been set for April 26. State District Judge Barbara Walther found that he committed the crimes and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Judge Walther found that Michael George Emack, who also pleaded no contest, committed bigamy. He was given a seven-year prison term that will run concurrently with a seven-year sentence he received in January for sexual assault of a child.

Both men belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which teaches that plural marriage brings glorification in heaven. Members have been reluctant to talk publicly about such unions, in part because Texas' bigamy statute makes it illegal to even purport to marry more than one person. Many of the FLDS unions are only church-sanctioned, not legally documented, marriages.

Texas officials have been careful to say that the sect's Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado was raided in April 2008 because of alleged underage marriages, not members' religious beliefs. Judge Walther's rulings Thursday were the first legal finding that bigamy occurred at the ranch.

Church records seized after authorities searched the ranch's sprawling homes and blasted into a safe in its four-story temple indicated that Mr. Jeffs, also known as Lehi Barlow Allred, had three wives in 2007. Four wives were listed for Mr. Emack.

Calls to the men's attorneys weren't immediately returned Thursday, but Gerald Goldstein, the San Antonio attorney who is helping to coordinate the defense of the 12 sect men indicted since the raid, said the plea agreements preserve the ability to challenge the state's bigamy statute.

The first challenge to the constitutionality of the law was rebuffed by Judge Walther.

Since the raid, five men have been sentenced to prison for sexual assault of a child, all on charges related to underage brides. Seven men, including FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, still face charges ranging from sexual assault to failure to report child abuse.

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

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