With that ritual introduction, the first of twelve men charged with a variety of felonies has been brought to trial this week more than a year and a half after a dramatic raid near El Dorado, Texas on a cloistered compound belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Raymond Merril Jessop, 38, whose religious practices included being “sealed in marriage” to and then allegedly raping multiple underage girls with the supposed goal of securing for himself a god-like existence in Heaven after death, is about to experience the here-and-now Earthly reality of being finely ground by Justice, West Texas style.
The raid and its aftermath was chronicled as it evolved in this remarkable “must read” series of blog posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30. [see Note*] [Temporary Comment, 10/31/09: I’m aware that almost all the links for this series are broken. The problem is at the host site, where in addition to these few a great many other previously functioning post links no longer connect. Hopefully the site administrator will soon be able to sort things out.]
Over 400 children were taken from their parents by Child Protective Services and the local District Court only to be returned by order of the Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court amidst a bewildering flurry of court filings and challenges that left many uncertain of what had been going on and whether or not any of it was criminal. But prosecutors subsequently took what they had discovered to a Texas grand jury, and jury members agreed to return indictments against 12 defendants alleging multiple instances of statutory rape and bigamy in which underage girls were “sealed” in religious marriage ceremonies to powerful men within the FLDS hierarchy. While members claim religious purposes, these underage and bigamous marriages also serve the entirely earthly purpose of reinforcing alliances between the men in charge and solidifying their political power.
One of the counts against Raymond Merril Jessop rests on his allegedly having been “sealed” to and subsequently having sexual relations with an underage
daughter niece of Warren Jeffs, the so-called FLDS “Prophet and Seer”, who is himself imprisoned in Utah on two counts of felony rape as an accomplice for facilitating the statutory rape of other young girls and is now being tried in Arizona on four counts of sexual conduct with a minor. [Correction: The Assault charge against Jessop is for alleged sexual intercourse with a minor child, one of Jeffs’ nieces. He is also charged with Bigamy for purportedly marrying another minor child, one of Jeffs’ daughters. Jessop reportedly has a total of nine wives including the children. H/t texastwist, in comments.]
This practice of intermarriage within the FLDS leadership is one of long standing. Over half of the church’s 10,000 members are descended from just two men whose last names recur in the FLDS rolls with startling frequency, founders Joseph Smith Jessop and John Yeates Barlow, an intensity of incest that has allowed an otherwise rare, devastating recessive genetic disorder to flourish.
Although Raymond Merril Jessop has been charged with two separate felonies, Sexual Assault of a girl younger than 17 and Bigamy with a girl younger than 16, this trial is only for the sexual assault charge; Texas wants at least one conviction, and isn’t going to let a single jury decide on both charges. At least ten separate criminal trials involving the twelve indicted men, among them the “Prophet” Jeffs, are currently planned. Texas will be in no hurry to bring Jeffs to trial. He is currently serving two consecutive prison terms of five-to-life in Utah, and will likely be incarcerated there for at least another eight years before being paroled. If convicted of the Texas charges, he would be transferred directly to a prison there at the time of his Utah parole. Multiple separate felony charges are also pending against Jeffs in Arizona, where he is currently jailed while awaiting trial.
While skillful propaganda by FLDS leaders has repeatedly succeeded in confusing many about the true nature of the church’s practices, not everyone has been fooled. Senator Harry Reed, himself a devout member of the less-radical LDS version of Mormonism, has called for the formation of a federal-state joint task force to address the many criminal practices that flourish within the FLDS. In testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposal, Reid stated that the FLDS have “wrongfully cloaked themselves in the trappings of religion” in order to “engage in an ongoing pattern of serious crimes that we ignore at our peril” including “bigamy, child abuse, statutory rape, welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics to maintain what they think is the status quo.”
The state’s witness list for this trial includes criminalists and others with expertise in financial shenanigans, suggesting that the state may be looking to elicit testimony that would lead to additional charges regarding the financial crimes cited by Reid. Certainly the scope of criminal behavior that is normal within the FLDS warrants further investigation and prosecution, as many who have escaped from the group can attest.
Carolyn Jessup, a polygamist wife and mother of eight children when she fled the FLDS, recounts a horrifying tale of widespread abuse in her book Escape. Flora Jessup, who fled the FLDS rather than submit to continued sexual abuse, trekked to Eldorado in 2004 to warn anyone who would listen that the hardened central core of the FLDS hierarchy was coming to town, and that they would be engaged in criminal activity. You can read her story in her book, Church of Lies, and about her work trying to save abused FLDS women here. She takes a broader view of the responsibility for criminal abuse within the FLDS, asserting that the adult women are also responsible for their behavior: “What I’m upset the most about, I think, is the fact that none of the women have been indicted, as well. I think that the women were nothing but pimps on that compound, giving their daughters over to these perverts knowing what was going to happen to them.” The women are enablers of victimization as well as victims, and are willing participants in a corrupt system that abuses boys as well as girls. You can read about what happens to “excess boys” in the FLDS here.
With the justice systems in Utah, Arizona and Texas all converging on the FLDS at the same time, it may finally be possible to break the cycle of abuse and corruption that the organization has fostered and thrived upon. That would be a reckoning long overdue.
Daily Coverage Resources: Salt Lake Tribune reporter Brooke Adams is covering the trial both in the daily paper and on her blog, while local coverage by the San Angelo Standard-Times can be read here.
[*Note: As scary-smart Anglachel states this truly is a must-read series, as fine a job of journalistic coverage and analysis as anything done on the subject anywhere in blogs or the MSM. A shame the site administrator hasn’t seen fit to make it more accessible by gathering it all together into a Book.)