SAN ANGELO, Texas While the custody fight for the hundreds of children seized from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch has devolved into legal chaos, a criminal probe is quietly moving forward.
"The investigation is continuing," Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange said in an e-mail to the Deseret News. "When we have completed our investigation, we will present our case report to the prosecutors for their action."
An Austin appellate court's ruling that Texas child welfare authorities overstepped their authority in removing all of the children from the FLDS property has no bearing on the law enforcement investigation, Mange said. More than 400 boxes of evidence taken under the search warrants that were executed in the early days of the raid are still being examined.
Utah and Arizona authorities remain hopeful that they may be able to see some of that evidence to assist in their ongoing criminal probes into the FLDS Church and its leader, Warren Jeffs.
"We know there's going to be all kinds of stuff," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Deseret News on Monday. "The photographs, I think, are just the beginning."
Shurtleff was referring to a series of bombshell photos put into evidence during a custody hearing on Friday that show Jeffs kissing what Texas Child Protective Services lawyers said was a 12-year-old girl "how a husband kisses a wife." That hearing resumes here today.
A handwritten note on the photos indicates they were taken in July 2006, a month before Jeffs was arrested outside Las Vegas. Jeffs was later convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
In Arizona, Jeffs is facing charges of sexual misconduct and incest as an accomplice. He is also facing a federal grand jury indictment for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, stemming from his time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
During a court hearing for Jeffs in Kingman, Ariz., earlier this month, the Arizona Attorney General's Office raised the possibility that evidence seized from the raid on the YFZ Ranch might be used to pursue evidence against him.
"We have not yet provided anything to out-of-state investigators but expect that we will," Mange wrote.
Lawyers for the FLDS Church have objected to the search warrants that were served, noting that it appears the raid on the YFZ Ranch was sparked by a hoax call. Authorities have dubbed a 33-year-old Colorado woman a "person of interest" in their investigation into the calls to family crisis hotlines, in which someone claiming to be a 16-year-old girl named "Sarah" said she was pregnant and in an abusive marriage to 49-year-old Dale Evans Barlow.
Barlow, a convicted sex offender who lives in Colorado City, Ariz., was questioned but not arrested. A warrant for him is not being pursued, and lawyers for the FLDS Church accuse Texas authorities of knowing that he wasn't on the YFZ Ranch, even as they raided the compound.
"The State's actions in invading and searching a place of religious significance raises important and sensitive issues which lay (sic) at the intersection of religious liberty and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures," Gerald Goldstein, an attorney for the FLDS Church and leaders Merril Jessop and Lyle Jeffs, wrote in court papers.
He also suggested that any evidence seized may be protected because of clergy-penitent privilege.
On the final day of the police search of the YFZ Ranch, the FBI executed a federal search warrant. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas will only say it is part of a "pending investigation."
A task force examining polygamy-related crimes is gearing up. Shurtleff and his counterpart, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, are scheduled to meet next month with U.S. Justice Department officials, the FBI, the U.S. attorneys for Utah, Arizona and Nevada, as well as local law enforcement and prosecutors, to coordinate efforts.
"Right now, all I'm going to say is good stuff about the feds," Shurtleff said. "We're expecting great cooperation."
The task force was born out of a public feud Shurtleff and Goddard had with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who accused the two states of doing nothing about polygamy.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman told the Deseret News earlier this month that his office has tried to pursue mafia-style racketeering, corruption and child-bride trafficking cases but has been stymied by a lack of witnesses and other evidence to establish probable cause.
In San Angelo, Tom Green County prosecutors have said they are still interested in pursuing their own charges, which could include bigamy. The Texas Attorney General's Office has been named a special prosecutor for any criminal cases that may come out of the investigation.
The Mohave County, Ariz., attorney recently served a subpoena on the United Effort Plan Trust's court-appointed special fiduciary, demanding evidence seized from the Cadillac Escalade that Jeffs was riding in when he was arrested in August 2006.
The subpoenas seek iPods, CDs, notes, letters to the FLDS leader, religious papers, laptops and thumb drives by Friday. UEP fiduciary Bruce Wisan is fighting the subpoena, saying that he has a confidentiality agreement with Jeffs' defense attorneys. Copies of the evidence are in the possession of the FBI, Jeffs' defense team and Jeffrey L. Shields, the fiduciary's lawyer.
"Except for the requirements of the stipulated protective order, the fiduciary and Shields are ready, willing and able to comply with the subpoena as to all of the Escalade documents in the possession of the fiduciary," wrote Jeffrey Goldberg, another lawyer for Wisan.
Wisan has served his own subpoenas on Tom Green County prosecutors in San Angelo, seeking to look at the evidence that law enforcement officers seized from the YFZ Ranch.
"Please produce all documents or tangible objects that mention or relate to possession or ownership of the structure referred to as 'The Temple,' located on the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas," one subpoena said. "Please produce all documents or tangible objects that mention or relate to the funding used to acquire the YFZ Ranch located in Schleicher County, Texas."112 comments on this story
Wisan is trying to collect on an $8.8 million default judgment against Jeffs and the FLDS Church. In 2005, the courts took control of the UEP Trust amid allegations that Jeffs and other FLDS leaders mismanaged it. The UEP Trust controls homes, businesses and property in the FLDS enclaves of Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia, in Canada.The fiduciary is seeking to determine if any UEP funds paid for the YFZ Ranch.