Prosectution rests case against polygamist sect man

Associated Press and Associated Press

ELDORADO, Texas – Prosecutors rested their case yesterday in the first criminal trial of a member of a West Texas polygamist sect after days of plodding through photos and records seized from the group’s ranch.

Lawyers for 38-year-old Raymond Jessop, charged with child sexual abuse, have not indicated whether they will call any witnesses in his defense. Jurors could have begun deliberating as early as yesterday.

Texas Ranger Nick Hanna testified that sect records seized from a cement vault in a temple annex demonstrated that a teenage girl and Jessop were living at the Yearning For Zion Ranch when they entered a so-called ‘spiritual marriage’ and she became pregnant at age 16.

Jessop’s attorney, Mark Stevens, has argued that prosecutors failed to show that any assault happened in Texas – a necessary element in demonstrating the court’s jurisdiction.

‘There is no way one can draw a reasonable inference … that this alleged event must have occurred on that ranch,’ he said during a hearing yesterday.

Jessop is the first member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to go on trial since authorities raided the ranch last year and swept more than 400 of the sect’s children into temporary foster care. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols used the testimony of Texas Rangers and a former FLDS member to introduce church marriage records, family photos and dictation by jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs as evidence in Jessop’s trial.

One dictation by Jeffs indicated that he advised Jessop and others in August 2005 not to take the girl to the hospital even though she had been struggling with giving birth for days.

‘I knew that the girl being 16 years old, if she went to the hospital, they could put Raymond Jessop in jeopardy of prosecution as the government is looking for any reason to come against us there,’ Jeffs said, according to seized church records.

Many of the documents, including the one recounting when the girl went into labor, were heavily redacted for the jury to remove references to plural marriages or other possible crimes. Some pages were entirely blacked out except for one or two lines.

Jessop allegedly has nine wives. He faces a bigamy charge, but that case is to be tried later. The girl in the assault case, now 21, was previously in a ‘spiritual marriage’ with Jessop’s brother before being ‘reassigned’ to Jessop when she was 15, according to documents seized at the ranch.

Forensic experts testified that DNA tests found a nearly 100 percent probability that Jessop was the father of the girl’s daughter.

Under Texas law, generally, no one under 17 can consent to sex with an adult.

Hanna yesterday walked jurors through some of Jeffs’ extensive dictations to demonstrate that Jessop was at the ranch in 2004 and early 2005. Based on when the girl gave birth, she became pregnant in November 2004, according to prosecutors.

The dictations shown to the jury covered dates including October 2004 and January 2005 but did not specifically address Jessop’s whereabouts that November.

In all, 12 FLDS men have been indicted on charges ranging from failure to report child abuse to sexual assault since the April 2008 raid. The 439 children taken from the ranch and placed in foster care following the raid have all been returned to their parents or other relatives, but the documents seized in the raid were used to help build criminal cases.

Jeffs, revered by the FLDS as the group’s prophet, was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape. He awaits trial in Arizona on charges related to underage marriages there. Then, he’ll face separate sexual assault and bigamy charges in Texas.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and does not recognize the FLDS.

Historically based around the Arizona-Utah state line, the FLDS bought a ranch about 150 miles northwest of San Antonio, in Eldorado, six years ago, and began building massive homes and a towering temple.

The raid of the insular group made national headlines as women in prairie dresses and braids were moved off the ranch, and child welfare officials took custody of their children in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.