Church records offer rare look inside polygamist families

Associated Press/May 10, 2008

San Antonio - Hand-scrawled records taken from a polygamist sect are helping untangle the spider-web network of family relationships at the Yearning For Zion ranch, where some husbands had more than a dozen wives.

The church records offer a peek into an intricate culture in which men related to the sect's prophet, Warren Jeffs, enjoyed favored-husband status in the distribution of wives and all young women were married by 24.

An Associated Press analysis of the records, which authorities seized in a raid last month, show that by the time a girl reached 16, she was more likely to be married than to live as a child in her father's household. The same was not true for boys.

Ben Bistline, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who was raised in the sect, said Jeffs or other church leaders decided who got married and when. Jeffs is imprisoned on an accomplice-to-rape charge in Utah.

"It's just at the whim of the leader," said Bistline, who said successful businessmen who donate heavily to the sect or who are close to the prophet are generally favored. "There's a lot of nepotism involved."

The records, released by court officials last week, include 37 families totaling 507 individuals. At the time the lists were written from March through August of 2007, most of the people were living at the YFZ Ranch, though others were in homes along the Utah-Arizona line.

Two-thirds of listed households were polygamous, with the brothers of Jeffs and a senior elder claiming the most wives, up to 21 in one case.

Men still in their 20s made up most of the dozen monogamous marriages.

The husbands and wives were married in the FLDS, and none is believed to hold Texas marriage licenses.

Of the 19 youths listed as being 16 or 17, none of the boys are husbands, while nine of the girls are listed as wives. Only one 17-year-old girl remained unmarried.

Under Texas law, children under the age of 17 generally cannot consent to sex with an adult.

The young men in monogamous marriages will likely seek additional wives as they age, Bistline said.

"A man has to have at least three wives to get to the highest degree of heaven," he said.

After the raid, the state took custody of 464 children belonging to FLDS families, including one born later to a teen mother. Authorities alleged that teenage girls were being systematically abused and forced into underage marriages, while boys were being groomed to become future abusers.

Church officials insist they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the records indicate that many sect members "are either monogamous couples or adult couples, and that incidence of underage marriage is actually not very prevalent."

No criminal charges have been filed, though state authorities continue to investigate.

"Our investigation and prosecution will go where the evidence leads," Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said in an e-mail statement.

As in many states, government-recognized marriage in Texas to more than one person at the same time is a felony. But the law also apparently applies to anyone who "purports to marry" - language used in Utah to target polygamists who marry in religious services but don't get marriage licenses.

Ken Driggs, an Atlanta lawyer who is an expert on the FLDS and the legal history of polygamy, said any prosecution of FLDS members for multiple marriages would be difficult because of the law's vagueness, questions of jurisdiction and the community's refusal to testify in previous instances.

"They have a tricky case in front of them," Driggs said.

The records are each labeled "Father's Family Information Sheet, Bishop's Record," and appear to be a kind of church census, with wives and children listed below the male head of household. The age and location of each individual is included, though some are incomplete.

Church elder Wendell Nielsen is listed as having the most wives at 21. Two of Jeffs' brothers also had numerous wives. His brother, Nephi Jeffs, had 14 wives listed. Isaac Jeffs, the brother who was driving Warren Jeffs when he was arrested outside Las Vegas in August 2006, had 10 wives listed.

The records, taken from a safe in an office at the ranch, were among the truckload of documents, computer disks and family Bibles seized from the ranch during a six-day search for records that showed underage marriages. Parker said he was unsure how complete the records are or what purpose they served.

Authorities raided the compound April 3 after a series of calls to a domestic-abuse hot line that purportedly came from a 16-year-old girl who was forced into a relationship at the ranch with a man three times her age. The girl has not been found, and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax.

Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage in Utah between a 14-year-old follower and a 19-year-old man. Jeffs awaits trial on other charges in Arizona.

The AP News Research Center in New York and Associated Press Writer Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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