Attorney General Greg Abbott has moved to seize a 1,700-acre ranch in West Texas, the scene of a 2008 raid of a polygamous sect accused of rampant sexual abuse and underage marriage in the name of religion.
Warren Jeffs, the one-time prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, currently is serving a life sentence for sexual assault of children in an East Texas prison. It's only the latest in a string of states that have wanted to prosecute Jeffs for his activities in Utah, Arizona and Texas.
Four years after the initial raid, the state has successfully prosecuted nine men in the sect, with convictions on both sex abuse and bigamy. The seizure of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, however, would be a death blow in Texas for the church, which appears to have scattered to various other states where FLDS holds property.
"Based upon the evidence reviewed in this case, Affiant believes that the suspected place was designed, improved and adapted in such a manner as illicit schemes and criminal activity described in this affidavit avoid detection by law enforcement," Sgt. Mario Martinez wrote in the warrant. "The isolation and security of this community also helped facilitate the identified criminal offenses and ensured said criminal conduct would not be reported to law enforcement."
What that means for the future of the women and children in the FLDS who might choose to stay in Texas -- the presumed victims -- is still unclear. Reporter Steve Anderson, who has covered Jeffs extensively and attended the subsequent trials out of Marfa, says the search and seizure warrant indicates those on site can stay through the trial but will certainly be expected to leave if the state prevails.
The state's contention is that the land was purposely purchased and developed to carry out crimes of sexual assault and bigamy by multiple people. Under state law, that's a conspiracy. But even if everyone remaining in the sect, or at the YFZ Ranch, wanted to contest the charges, it's unclear who would defend them.
"Who, if anybody, will show up to defend the FLDS in court?" Anderson asks. "I think almost all FLDS lawyers have been fired from the criminal appeals. Warren keeps excommunicating people, and it's not at all clear who's in charge now."
That's what galls attorney Susan Hays the most. The Dallas-based lawyer represented one of the mothers who saw her daughter returned from the custody of Child Protective Services. Today Hays has no contact with her client because Jeffs, from prison and with warden approval, has told followers to cease contact with outsiders. He continues to run the FLDS from his prison cell in Palestine, Texas.
"Warren Jeffs continues his reign of terror over these families," Hays said. "The state of Texas's lack of concern for the well-being of the victims continues to horrify me, as well as the fact they allow Jeffs to so freely communicate with his followers."
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