FLDS: Ex-president avoids prison

Nielsen gets probation in bigamy case

San Angelo Standard-Times, Texas/October 26, 2011

San Angelo, Texas -- The former president of a polygamous sect pleaded no contest to three counts of third-degree bigamy this week and was sentenced to 10 years probation, Schleicher County district court staff said.

Wendell Loy Nielsen, who was once president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had been indicted after a raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in April 2008 by law enforcement looking for someone claiming sexual abuse at the ranch.

Twelve men were indicted as a result of evidence collected from the ranch, on charges such as child sexual assault, bigamy and performing an illegal ceremony.

Nine men have now been sentenced for charges of sexual assault and bigamy.

A third-degree felony is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

Nielsen is the first FLDS member with charges resulting from the ranch raid to receive a probated sentence. Punishments have ranged from six years to life in prison.

Part of the plea deal included waiving the right to appeal, Nielsen's Austin attorney David Botsford said.

Motions to quash the indictments against him argued that the Texas bigamy statutes are unconstitutional.

"As such, the Texas bigamy statute violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," the motion states.

The state had said that Nielsen's trial could last up to two weeks, and late in September the defense and the state were gearing up for a trial outside of Tom Green County, but with state District Judge Barbara Walther still presiding, in mid-November.

At that pretrial, both sides hinted that they were looking toward a resolution outside of court.

The current FLDS president is listed as Warren Jeffs, the "prophet" and leader of the religion who was sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison for sexually assaulting girls 12 and 15 years old.

Jeffs was the leader of the FLDS even when Nielsen was president and Jeffs was in prison in Utah on charges relating to sexual crimes.

Jeffs also faces a case of first-degree bigamy, punishable by five to 99 years or life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

His would be the first bigamy case involving an FLDS member to go to trial.

Two other men have pleaded no contest to charges of bigamy, Lehi Barlow Jeffs and Michael Emack, in April 2010. They received sentences of seven and eight years in prison.

The next scheduled trial of an FLDS member is for Fredrick Merril Jessop, who is charged with conducting an illegal ceremony in connection with an underage marriage. His trial is set for Monday in Coke County.

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