SAN ANGELO, Texas — The defense team for polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who claims the judge overseeing his upcoming trial is biased, solicited testimony Monday from court officials in an attempt to show she took an unusual interest in the case and received extra security for fear she could be targeted because of it.
It's the second time the 55-year-old Jeffs, ecclesiastical head of a radical, Mormon offshoot known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has sought to replace Texas District Judge Barbara Walther. He is scheduled for trial July 25 in Walther's court on sexual assault charges that could land him in prison for life.
They stem from an April 2008 raid on the church's Yearning for Zion compound outside the town of Eldorado, south of San Angelo, where Jeffs is set to be tried. Authorities who claimed underage girls were being forced into polygamous marriages temporarily removed more than 400 children living at the compound, and the story made headlines nationwide when women from the compound were seen in frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos.
The raid left Jeffs and 11 others facing charges that included sexual assault and bigamy. Seven have been prosecuted since last year, and all were convicted in cases overseen by Walther — who signed the original search warrant that prompted the raid.
Jeffs attorney Emily Munoz Detoto said Monday that Walther received calls while the raid was going on about how many children were being removed from the compound. The judge then called child protective services to ensure they had the manpower to handle so many cases.
"From early on, there was a tenor of bias against Mr. Jeffs and the church of the FLDS," Detoto said. She then called to testify one of the law enforcement officials involved in the raid, Brooks Long of the Texas Rangers, who confirmed that Walther receive updates on the raid — but said that wasn't unusual.
He said police had been told 150 people lived on the compound but the figure was actually 800, that authorities spent nearly three hours talking with church leaders before they were granted access to the grounds and that residents watched the situation from guard towers.
"I have never been on a ranch in West Texas or anywhere in Texas that had a setup like this," he said of the level of security.
Long also said attorneys for the church arrived on private planes and filed motions to stop the raid, meaning Walther could have learned about its progress from what was filed.
Long said it was common knowledge Walther received extra police protection after the raid. Detoto then asked him to read from a newspaper article where a church supporter claimed to have posted the judge's home address and phone number on the Internet and suggested that someone "pay her a visit."
Detoto then called Claire Carter, an assistant district attorney, who said that after the raid, an investigator and prosecutor from Arizona met with her and provided background on the FLDS, which has its traditional headquarters in towns along the Arizona-Utah border. Carter said they provided names and photographs of several men identified as church enforcers who could target Walther or take other action.
comment on this story
Carter called the information "a minor part of what we talked about." However, a subsequent witness, San Angelo attorney Tip Hargrove, testified that he saw the photographs pasted on the walls of an office used by a bailiff who was sometimes assigned to Walther.
Hargrove said that among those pictured was prominent church member Willie Jessop and Lye Jeffs, Warren's brother.
Judge John Hyde of Midland presided over Monday's proceedings. He heard, and ultimately denied, Jeffs' first motion to remove Walther last month. That motion claimed the judge's body language affected jurors during earlier trials of FLDS members.
Detoto had subpoenaed Walther to testify, but prosecutors filed a motion to quash that.