Grand jury begins its investigation of Texas sect

Thursday, June 26, 2008

ELDORADO, Texas -- Women and girls in prairie dresses entered a courthouse surrounded by dozens of law enforcement officers in this tiny ranching hamlet Wednesday as a grand jury opened its investigation into a polygamist sect accused of forcing underage girls into marriage and motherhood.

The main square in Eldorado was cordoned off with yellow police tape. A sheriff's department worker snapped photos of anyone who stood by or attempted to talk to sect members who arrived at the courthouse Wednesday and may be grand jury witnesses.

One witness subpoenaed to testify is a 16-year-old girl who denies state claims that she was married off at 15 and had a child soon after. She has asked for a new lawyer, claiming her court-appointed lawyer is lying about her.

Another attorney for the girl, Alan Futrell, said the grand jury ended its work for the day and would not reconvene until July 22.

"I don't want to do it," the girl said of testifying Wednesday morning in a brief interview. After spending about 40 minutes in the courthouse in the afternoon, she only turned and smiled when asked if she testified.

Her mother, who was not subpoenaed, said she wasn't sure what the girl was called to talk about. "We just kind of wonder what it's all about," she said.

'A slow grind'

No one who entered the courthouse was willing to comment about what had gone on inside. Futrell said he believes any criminal indictments would be a long way off.

"This is just a slow grind. It's emotional," he said.

Grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret, but court filings in a related child welfare case disclosed the start of the grand jury's work and the subpoena of the 16-year-old, a daughter of the sect's jailed prophet Warren Jeffs.

The Associated Press does not generally identify alleged victims of sex abuse.

The girl was among the more than 400 children swept into state custody from a ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The girl had a light moment as she waited at a picnic table outside the courthouse with several other young female FLDS members. She persuaded the others to help pull the table over to a large live oak tree, which she scrambled up to a height of about three stories while the others snapped photos with their cell phones and laughed.

The girl's child custody attorney, Natalie Malonis, won an extension of a restraining order against FLDS elder Willie Jessop at a hearing Tuesday. Malonis claims Jessop is influencing the girl to be uncooperative, an accusation he denies.

Malonis was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, according to a lawyer for the girl's mother, and Malonis could be seen coming in and out of the courthouse Wednesday, as could Texas Rangers, the investigative arm of state police.

The criminal case follows state child welfare officials' ill-fated April seizure of all children at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. The children were scattered across foster-care facilities around the state.

The state accused the sect of widespread sexual abuse of teen girls, but the Texas Supreme Court forced the state to return the children from foster care earlier this month. The high court said the state overreached in taking all the children from the ranch when only a handful of girls may have been abused.

It's not clear what, or whether, criminal indictments of FLDS members may result, but prosecutions of sexual abuse crimes are difficult to prosecute without the victims' cooperation.

Under Texas law, a girl younger than 17 cannot generally consent to sex with an adult. Bigamy, which is generally considered a crime of fraud, is also illegal in Texas, although FLDS plural marriages were not sanctioned by the state.

FLDS leaders have consistently denied there was any abuse at the ranch and vowed earlier this month not to sanction underage marriages.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. Historically, church members lived along the Arizona-Utah line, where authorities had not sought criminal charges in decades until allegations of underage marriages -- and willing witnesses -- surfaced several years ago.

Still, just a handful of criminal cases have been prosecuted in the sect, estimated to have 6,000 members. Jeffs was convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice for his role in the marriage of a 14-year-old and her 19-year-old cousin. He is in jail and awaiting trial on Arizona charges related to marriages involving young girls.

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