Clashing Stories, Similar DNA Hurt FLDS Prosecution

By Terri Langford
Houston Chronicle

August 4, 2008

But state's case may be helped by records girls kept in their journals

Indicting members of a polygamist sect on child sexual assault is one thing.

But prosecuting anyone on child sexual assault charges is a much different, and tougher, thing to accomplish, according to legal experts.

Even if Texas Child Protective Services comes back with a finding that sexual abuse happened at the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas, the standard for a child sexual assault conviction is much higher, said professor Ellen Marrus, who heads the University of Houston's Center for Children, Law and Policy.

"The problem isn't so much proving the issue that there had been sexual contact," Marrus said. "The bigger issue is proving who did it. ... So unless the child testifies that she had sex with a Mr. A or Mr. B, you don't have any proof who did it."

On July 22, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, 52, and four of his followers Raymond Merrill Jessop, 36; Allan Eugene Keate, 56; Michael George Emack, 57; and Merrill Leroy Jessop, 33 were indicted on sexual assault of a child charges. A sixth man, Lloyd Hammon Barlow, 38, was charged with three counts of failure to report child abuse. Jeffs is in custody in Arizona, where he is accused of arranging underage marriages. The other five surrendered to authorities last week.

Under Texas law, sexual assault of a child occurs when an adult has sexual contact with someone younger than 17.

From the beginning, the four-month investigation into whether members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints forced underage girls to have sex with adult men through so-called spiritual marriages has been an uphill climb, one fraught with detours down forensic rabbit trails caused by very similar DNA and a well-funded defense.

What started with a March 28 complaint that at least one girl was being physically and sexually abused by a man decades her senior a call now considered a hoax quickly escalated into the largest, and arguably one of the most complex, child custody cases in the U.S. after CPS and law enforcement officers reached the remote 1,700-acre ranch that sits northeast of the tiny town of Eldorado.

There, they found a virtual hamlet about a third the size of Eldorado that included nearly 500 children, many of them born in the past four years.

After interviewing more than a dozen teen girls inside one of the sect's 19 lodge-like homes on the night of April 3, CPS investigators reported evidence that not only were underage girls married, but also some became mothers before turning 18. Concerned that younger girls and boys were being raised in an environment where girls could be made wives once they menstruated, CPS and law enforcement huddled with state District Judge Barbara Walther, who ordered all children to be removed.

But from the start, the sect's own demographic makeup and culture of providing little information about themselves to outsiders, particularly after a 1953 raid on their homes by Arizona officials, has made this case difficult.

CPS investigators said they were given different names by children and parents, muddying the effort to determine family groups.

FLDS members have said they were not misleading CPS but were rather clarifying the names the agency got wrong from the state.

The confusing tangle of family relationships within a sect where a handful of families have intermarried for decades and often use the same names has been a major hurdle for both CPS and the Texas Attorney General's Office now prosecuting the case.

According to one state source close to the investigation who asked not to be identified, at least 5 percent of DNA samples taken from children and parents was so similar when compared, it could not be determined in those cases which child belonged to which parent.

Also, investigators have complained of inconsistent stories from young women about whether they were married to adult men.

In their own words

However, despite the silence or varying versions about who is related or married to whom, investigators have been aided by an unlikely source: the sect's penchant for writing journals, recording family trees and scrapbooking their lives.

This practice appears to be one adopted by many members, including the young girls who write about their hopes to be united in marriage to a worthy FLDS man, an act considered their legacy and duty to their breakaway Mormon faith.

In a Dec. 27, 2006, entry submitted recently to Walther's court, a teenage daughter of FLDS president Warren Jeffs wrote: "The Lord blessed me to go forward in marriage July 27, 2006, the day after I turned 15 years old."

The girl also kept scrapbooks that included pictures of her passionately kissing her new husband, 34-year-old Raymond Jessop. In another picture, she is seen seated closely to her husband on a couch.

Her journal is not the only one among more than 1,000 boxes of documents pulled from the ranch by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Key among those documents are the dictated daily pages of convicted FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, a section of which was included in a court-appointed guardian's report on the well-being of the now 16-year-old girl believed to be Raymond Jessop's wife.

"I was shown that I should perform three marriage sealings tonight," states a journal entry dictated by Warren Jeffs in which he describes marrying off his daughter and two others on July 27, 2006.

"I did gather my daughter and her mother Annette in this afternoon and gave her a training on how to be a heavenly wife and to get close to her husband," Jeffs stated.

The girl's own diary, excerpted and attached in the court filing, corroborated that series of events.

"Father said the Lord would like you to get married tonight, now what do you think of that? Are you willing?" the teen recalled in her diary.

Group says nothing proven

But Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney and spokesman for the group, says the excerpt proves nothing about a sexual relationship, revealing what could be a strong legal defense to allegations of sexual abuse.

"I don't know if there's a marriage," Parker said, meaning one that included sexual relations, "or (something) short of a marriage."

That opinion was echoed by Willie Jessop, Jeffs' former bodyguard and a spokesman for the group in Eldorado.

"We told them the day (of the indictments) we were going to face that thing," Willie Jessop said. "The people are honorable. We don't believe we're criminals."

Parker also noted, correctly, that the level of evidence needed to indict someone is far lower than the type of evidence needed to convict someone "beyond a reasonable doubt." And to convict, prosecutors will need much more than is required by CPS to confirm child sexual abuse occurred.

CPS investigators determine if there is "reason to believe" abuse has occurred. While there may be enough evidence for CPS to confirm the abuse, there may not be enough evidence to convict an abuser.

In a CPS investigation, caseworkers only have to find "clear and convincing evidence" that abuse occurred to remove a child permanently from the home and move to sever parents' rights to the child.

"All this is much less than beyond a reasonable doubt," Marrus said.



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