Sect Hearings Make Halting Progress
State Seeks to Retake Custody of 7 Children

By Paul A. Anthony
Abilene Reporter-News
August 18, 2008

Three times, the state's attorney asked Barbara Steed Jessop the question, stated slightly differently: Have you ever left your residence overnight while your two children remained?

The answers varied.

"We are there by ourselves," the 55-year-old woman said once during Monday's hearing. "I stay with my children," she said when asked again. The third time, she replied, "My daughters live there also."

On Jeff Schmidt's fourth try, he received a starkly different response.

San Angelo Standard-Times photo by Cynthia Esparza Willie Jessop, left, and other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leave the Tom Green County Courthouse for a lunch break Monday in San Angelo.

"I don't want to answer your questions," said Jessop, arguably the matriarch of the YFZ Ranch, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' compound in Schleicher County. "I stand on the Fifth" Amendment.

The hearing is the first attempt to retake custody of FLDS children since state appellate courts in June ordered CPS to return the 440 it had removed from the compound in an early April raid. The agency on Aug. 5 filed motions to remove eight children from four families.

One of the children, a 17-year-old boy, was determined to be able to protect himself and was dropped from the motions, CPS investigator Ruby Gutierrez told attorneys. That leaves seven children sprinkled among the four cases.

Attorneys worked toward agreements Monday in two of the cases, and deals are likely this week, said CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner. However, the two other cases — involving Jessops' two children and the two children of the ranch's on-site physician, Dr. Lloyd Hammon Barlow — did not appear resolvable.

Jessop said little else for 55 of Schmidt's next 56 questions. She refused to answer queries about the names of her children, to identify them in photos, to say how long she lived on the YFZ Ranch, or to even describe how husband Merril Jessop — the ranch's leader since the imprisonment of FLDS head Warren Jeffs — earns his money.

Criminal investigations are ongoing, and she and her husband are accused in CPS affidavits of allowing and participating in nearly a dozen marriages of underage girls to older men. So Jessop invoked her constitutional right during a hearing in which she was fighting to maintain custody of two of her children.

"It may incriminate her in light of the ongoing criminal investigations," San Angelo lawyer Gonzalo Rios, her attorney, told the court.

Rios will present Jessop's case when the hearing continues this morning.

Defendants in criminal cases can invoke the Constitution's Fifth Amendment and avoid testifying altogether. But Jessop, because she was in civil court, pleaded the amendment to each question she was asked — except one.

When Schmidt asked whether it was in a child's best interests for a parent to keep him or her from harm, she said simply, "Yes."

It was another unusual moment in a case that has defied description since April 3, when CPS and law enforcement officials began raiding the compound. They were investigating alleged physical and sexual abuse at the ranch. The probe kicked off the largest child-welfare case in American history.

Authorities were acting on a tip provided in phone calls that are now believed to be a hoax.

Of 440 children initially removed, 364 remain in the investigation, including the seven whose cases are under way this week, Meisner said.

CPS was seeking removal Monday of Merril and Barbara Jessop's two children — a 14-year-old girl whom sect documents show was married to Jeffs himself when she was 12 and her 11-year-old brother. The agency argued that the couple's lengthy involvement with alleged underage marriages placed their youngest children at risk.

According to a document compiled by CPS and entered as evidence Monday, Jessop and his wife participated in or condoned the underage marriage of 10 girls — including two daughters — in Texas, Utah and Arizona.

"It is my opinion that if a 12-year-old has been married to a gentleman over the age of 15, there is no way his or her siblings do not know that," Gutierrez, the CPS investigator, testified, "and have had to cope with that kind of a situation. (It is) not in the best interests of that 12-year-old child, or of any of the other siblings in the home."

Gutierrez largely reiterated the allegations compiled in CPS affidavits attached to the motions filed this month. The most famous of those is that not only did Merril Jessop witness the marriage of his 12-year-old daughter to Jeffs, but that he also witnessed his 35-year-old son's marriage to Jeffs' 15-year-old daughter the same night.

Barbara Jessop's recalcitrance managed to upstage the testimony of her former "sister wife," Carolyn Jessop, who was married to Merril Jessop for 16 years before fleeing the sect with her eight children in 2003.

Carolyn Jessop accused her ex-husband and his wife of abusing her children — in one alleged case by repeatedly spanking her infant son, then holding his face under running water in a cycle Carolyn Jessop accused her ex-husband of repeating for an estimated 40 minutes.

Barbara Jessop sat largely expressionless, except to occasionally confer with Rios, during Carolyn Jessop's testimony.

Before responding to the events of the day, sect spokesman Willie Jessop — who is not closely related to Merril Jessop or his wives — walked out of the Tom Green Courthouse with Carolyn Jessop's 19-year-old daughter, Betty, who willingly returned to the sect and lives with her father.

"That's why we have tomorrow," Willie Jessop said of the testimony. "Carolyn's daughter is here. We'll see what she has to say."


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