Photo: Raymond Merrill Jessop.
(AP/Texas Dept. of Public Safety)
ELDORADO, Texas (CBS/AP) America will get another look inside the secretive polygamist sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), as one of its patriarchs, Raymond Jessop, is about to face a jury for allegedly sexually assaulting a child – his own wife.
Jessop, 38, the first of a dozen polygamist sect members charged with abuse of women, is set to stand trial Monday, 18 months after agents raided the group's remote ranch and carted off more than 400 children in the largest child custody case in American history.
Jessop faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of sexual assault of a child, a charge stemming from his alleged marriage to an underage girl in the FLDS.
He will be tried later on a separate count of bigamy related to a second alleged underage bride.
In all, 12 sect members have been charged with crimes ranging from failure to report child abuse to sexual assault and bigamy.
Attorneys must cull from a pool of 300 people to try to seat 12 jurors and two alternates. Seating an impartial jury in this community of fewer than 1,900 voters may prove difficult, because most residents know one another and the April 2008 raid on the Yearning For Zion Ranch drew intense media coverage. Images of sect girls in pigtails and women in prairie-style dresses dominated the cable news networks for weeks after the raid.
Photo: FLDS women wear traditional dress outside a Texas courtroom in April of 2009 as they battle for custody of their children.
If lawyers can't come up with a jury from the initial pool, the trial could be moved to an adjoining county.
Jessop's trial is expected to last two weeks, said Assistant state Attorney General Eric Nichols, who is prosecuting the case. The prosecution's witness list has 59 people, including law enforcement and child welfare officials, two of Jessop's alleged wives and former FLDS members.
Authorities have said little about the allegations against Jessop, but documents seized from the ranch indicate the assault charge stems from his alleged marriage to an underage girl. The girl later became pregnant and was in labor for several days in August 2005. But after Jessop consulted with sect leader Warren Jeffs, the girl wasn't taken to the hospital, allegedly out of fear that hospital authorities would discover her age and turn in Jessop.
"I knew that the girl being 16 years old, if she went to the hospital, they could put Raymond Jessop in jeopardy of prosecution as the government is looking for any reason to come against us there," Jeffs wrote in a journal seized from the ranch.
Jeffs was arrested in 2006 and later convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah for arranging an underage marriage there. He faces similar charges in Arizona and is charged with bigamy and sexual assault of a child in Texas.
Photo: Warren Jeffs in a Las Vegas court Aug. 31, 2006.
One of Jeffs' daughters allegedly married Jessop the day after she turned 15. The bigamy charge against Jessop pertains to that alleged marriage.
Under Texas law, generally, no one under 17 can consent to sex with an adult. But that law was changed after the sect arrived in the state.
Sect members, who believe polygamy brings glorification in heaven, historically have lived around the Arizona-Utah line, but the sect bought a ranch on the outskirts of Eldorado about six years ago. Hundreds of FLDS members, including many of the 439 children initially taken by child welfare authorities, have returned to the log cabin-style homes there.
The sect is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.