Grand jury adjourns without action in FLDS criminal case

It will reconvene July 22 to hear more evidence on alleged abuse

Houston Chronicle/June 25, 2008

Eldorado - A West Texas grand jury spent a full day Wednesday weighing evidence about alleged sexual abuse inside a polygamist sect but adjourned without filing criminal charges after hearing from only a few of the witnesses subpoenaed by the state.

The Schleicher County grand jury was ordered to reconvene on July 22 to continue hearing the state's case against members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said Rod Parker, an attorney for the breakaway Mormon sect.

Attorneys for the Texas Attorney General's Office refused to comment on the proceedings, since grand jury hearings are secret. The state alleges that the group forces underage girls into spiritual marriages and sex with older men.

About a dozen women in pioneer dresses, the uniform of female FLDS members, were seen throughout the day outside the heavily guarded courthouse. The women were apparently heeding subpoenas to testify, though Parker said he's not sure if any did.

He said state prosecutors failed to provide written assurances that witnesses engaged in polygamist unions would not be tried later on bigamy charges, either here or in places outside their jurisdiction, like Utah or Arizona, where the FLDS has its stronghold.

"I think the whole thing fell apart because (state prosecutors) failed to offer the necessary immunity," Parker said. "There are Fifth Amendment issues here."

Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said it might take months for the state to lay out its case. Investigators were still in the process of sorting through the hundreds of boxes of evidence collected during its weeklong raid of the sect's ranch in April as well as results collected from DNA tests, he said.

"We expect this will be a long process," Doran said.

Wednesday's proceedings turned the main square in this tiny West Texas town upside down. The courthouse was surrounded by about a dozen state and local deputies and closed to all visitors unrelated to the FLDS case.

A court-appointed attorney for the 16-year-old daughter of sect leader Warren Jeffs arrived with an armed guard, assigned to her by the Attorney General's Office. Natalie Malonis, who spent the past week sparring with sect leaders, said she feared for her safety.

Malonis maintains her client, who was reportedly subpoenaed by the state, was spiritually married at age 15. Her client tried but failed Tuesday to fire Malonis, saying she is biased against her family and not representing her interests.

Arizona and Utah in recent years have put behind bars some FLDS members, including their revered prophet Jeffs, who was charged with sex abuse crimes.

Wednesday's proceedings came nearly three months after state authorities raided the sect's 1,700 acre Yearning for Zion Ranch and seized all 440 children, plus about 20 young women who Child Protective Services said they believed to be underage.

The children were returned to their parents two months later when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed to prove that they were in immediate danger of abuse.

Chronicle reporter Terri Langford in Houston contributed to this report.

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