Polygamous Sect to Defend 6 Members in Court and Its Practices on Capitol Hill

New York Times/July 24, 2008

Dallas - Texas Rangers and prosecutors prepared Wednesday to arrest five members of a polygamous sect indicted the day before with their imprisoned leader on charges relating to under-age marriages and bigamy.

Also Wednesday, supporters and critics of the sect converged on Washington for a Senate committee hearing on "crimes associated with polygamy."

The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, had announced the indictments by a Schleicher County grand jury late Tuesday, which accused the sect leader, Warren Jeffs, and four other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of sexual assault. One of those men was also accused of bigamy. A sixth man was charged with three counts of failure to report child abuse.

The indictment against Mr. Jeffs, the only one yet made public, charges him with first-degree felony sexual assault involving a child.

The other men will not be identified or the indictments unsealed until they have been taken into custody, the authorities said.

The grand jury investigation stemmed from a weeklong raid on the church's Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado in April that led to 440 children being temporarily taken into state custody. The children were returned after two state courts ruled there was insufficient evidence of abuse or neglect, but court-ordered parenting classes are scheduled to begin this week as the criminal investigation continues.

Willie Jessop, a sect spokesman, said Wednesday, "We feel like it is a desperate attempt for Texas to save face on their barbaric actions on their first raid," but Mr. Jessop added that the indicted men would turn themselves in to fight the charges in court once the arrest warrants were served.

Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for the attorney general, said his office was "coordinating with multiple law enforcement agencies to ensure all suspects are taken into custody quickly and in a manner that does not harm an ongoing criminal investigation."

Natalie Malonis, the court-appointed lawyer for one of Mr. Jeffs's daughters, said, "It's a tragedy all the way around, a sad, sad situation for a lot of people."

"The indictments indicate there was something wrong going on and it was happening with children," Ms. Malonis said, but added that in her view the legal system was not equipped to deal with such a closed society.

As the criminal case against the men unfolded in Texas, advocates and critics of the sect headed to Washington for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the majority leader, introduced legislation Wednesday calling for a national task force on polygamy and a $4 million fund to bolster law enforcement and social service efforts to fight it and associated crimes.

Jon Summers, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, said the senator had long been concerned over "rampant" levels of crime in polygamous communities, including the abuse of women and children, financial crimes like welfare fraud and tax evasion, kidnapping and extortion.

"We see it in Arizona, in Utah; clearly we've seen it in Texas," Mr. Summers said, "and Warren Jeffs was arrested in Nevada."

Sect members plan to attend the hearing on Thursday to speak on their own behalf, and their lawyer, Rod Parker, sent committee members a letter saying the sect had been persecuted for maintaining its religious practices.

Shannon Price, a social worker with close relatives in the church, said that even if all of its leaders were imprisoned, the group would never abandon its practice of polygamy.

"It's essential to their faith," Ms. Price said. "You can't enter the celestial kingdom unless you've been entered into a polygamous or plural marriage."

Carolyn Jessop, a former member of the sect who fled with her children, said she would lobby at the Senate committee hearing for federal protection and support for women and children trapped in the polygamous lifestyle.

"When you're born into this kind of society, it is next to impossible to leave," Ms. Jessop said.

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