Texas Ranger who spoke with Warren Jeffs testifies in civil rights case

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 17, 2014

By Jim Dalrymple II

There’s a Texas Ranger named Nick Hanna, and he’s spent time chatting with Warren Jeffs.

Hanna is one of the many witnesses who has testified in the Cooke civil rights trial, which has been taking place in Phoenix. In case you’re just tuning in now, the case boils down to whether or not the mostly-polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., discriminated against the Cooke family because they aren’t members of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The trial for the case began in late January and should wrap up this week.

Hanna testified over several days in early February — when I was unable to attend; transcripts for testimony from those day recently became available. The most fascinating stuff I’ve discovered so far in the transcripts — hundreds of page that I’ve been pouring through for only a day — came during Hanna’s testimony. Hanna was one of the Rangers who served search warrants on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. Among other things, he spoke about pulling box after box of FLDS Church records out of the ranch. The records detailed Warren Jeffs’ time on the run from the law, marriage records and an array of other information about life in the church.

“Essentially, it was a road map to life in the FLDS community,” Hanna testified. “And the thing that was surprising about the records is that the information was virtually limitless as far as no topic was too minute to be included in the priesthood record.”

In an testament to how intense the investigation was, Hanna said investigators pulled the boxes out of the ranch, but used them so much that the boxes themselves actually wore out and had to be replaced.

Hanna also was among the law officers who interacted closely with Jeffs. He said he rode on the plane with the now-imprisoned FLDS leader during his extradition, and accompanied him to court appearances. During these interactions, he said he had “you know, a few conversations” with Jeffs. Hanna described Jeffs’ voice as “very distinct and easily recognizable.”

“Mr. Jeffs generally speaks in a methodical, monotone type voice,” Hanna told the court.

The most relevant parts of Hanna’s testimony to the Cooke trial had to do with information he discovered allegedly indicating church control of the city governments. During examination by the Cooke’s attorneys, Hanna said he found letters between Jeffs and church leaders. The letters discussed finances, a sewer system in the community and many other things. At one point, Jeffs appears to rebuke a town mayor, saying that “if you are cut off from connecting with me you’ll be cut off from the presence of God.”

In another letter read during Hanna’s testimony, it appeared that church leaders were trying to block a former member from setting up new businesses in the community.

The information fits into the narrative, woven by the Cooke’s lawyers, of a city controlled by insular religious leaders. The Cookes’ complaint specifically says they were denied water and other utilities at their home because they were outsiders.

But lawyers for the cities cut against that idea when they cross examined Hanna. Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing Hildale, noted that Hanna hadn’t seen any FLDS “priesthood” records — like the ones he obtained in Texas — since long before the Cookes actually came to the towns. Hamilton also noted that Hanna never met anyone who worked for the local water authority.

At another point, Hamilton asked Hanna about a visit to the local police office. The Cookes’ attorneys have argued that the police are in the pocket of the church, but during his visit Hanna experienced some cooperation from police and didn’t notice any pictures of FLDS leaders at the police station.

Hamilton also worked to separate the cities from the FLDS Church, arguing that Jeffs’ actions — including kicking out believers who also held political office — were his own and were carried out by individual adherents.

Later, Hamilton said the alleged letters between church and city leaders haven’t been confirmed as authentic and even if they were, it’s not unheard of for city leaders to exchange public information with leaders of whatever the dominant religion might be in the region.

The transcripts from the trial include testimony from numerous other witnesses. Matthew Musser’s testimony was included via a previous deposition that was read in court. He said he lived in the community as a child, left the church, but wanted to come back to the area and live in a trust-owned home. Musser began working on the home, but someone kicked in the door while he was away and stripped out his work. He kept at it, but eventually gave up on the property when he learned the city wouldn’t connect water to the home.

“That’s what broke the camel’s back,” he said in his deposition.

Attorneys for the cities have argued that a drought prompted a policy against new water hookups unless those hookups added water to the overall system.

The case continues this week. If you’re just coming to the story now, the open arguments in the case sum up what each side is trying to prove. I also wrote a who’s who of the key players. For complete coverage on the case, visit the Tribune’s polygamy page.

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