FLDS couple signs tentative custody agreement

But most cases on hold; authorities say new evidence found

Published: Wednesday, May 28 2008 12:05 a.m. MDT

SAN ANGELO, Texas — The chaotic custody case surrounding hundreds of children taken from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch remains on hold today, pending a decision by the Texas Supreme Court on whether to return the children to their parents.

Meanwhile, Texas child welfare authorities said Tuesday they have uncovered more evidence that makes their case of underage marriages and sex abuse at the polygamous sect's property. That evidence was expected to be made public Tuesday at a court hearing over a 14-day-old baby, but a last-minute deal was struck.

"I understand y'all have reached a tentative agreement," Judge Barbara Walther said after a 2 1/2-hour delay, so lawyers could negotiate behind closed doors.

Dan Jessop and his wife Louisa Bradshaw (Jessop) signed a deal that gives the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services sole conservatorship over the baby. The parents have been named temporary possessors.

"I feel good about it," Dan Jessop said as he walked out of the courtroom. "It's one step closer to my family being together."

Bradshaw will stay in a San Antonio shelter with her baby. Her other children, a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, will be moved from a foster care facility in Austin to join her.

The deal can also be revisited upon a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court.

"We're pleased that the judge agreed that the baby should remain in the state's care," Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.

"Investigators have been able to go through more of the documents found at the ranch, and that means CPS has access to even more evidence detailing family relationships including marriages of underage girls. It's clearer than ever that children were at significant risk of sexual abuse at the ranch. We were prepared to present that evidence to the court. We do not know if the parents or FLDS agreed to a quick solution in this case in order to avoid the public disclosure of that evidence."

Witnesses

Tuesday's hearing would have called numerous witnesses, attorneys said, including a 13-year-old girl who CPS suggested was a child bride of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. The girl is a sister of Dan Jessop.

Jessop's attorney, Pat Matassarin, said the agreement was reached in a "collective effort." She had filed a motion to continue the hearing when she learned the witnesses were going to testify and CPS lawyers had come to court with documents several inches thick — but she had no idea what they would be talking about.

"The only thing they're supposed to be addressing is the physical well-being of the baby," Matassarin said. "Not 13-year-olds, not 15-year-olds, none of that."

Matassarin was referring to bombshell photographs introduced into evidence last week that showed Jeffs kissing a then-12-year-old girl in a manner that lawyers for CPS described as "how a husband kisses a wife."

Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS Church, accused Texas child welfare authorities of engaging in a "publicity stunt" with courtroom evidence.

"They have nothing to do with this family," he said. "It's just an effort by CPS to get publicity for their larger intent to paint everybody with this same brush. These photos have no tie to this particular family in a way that's relevant to these proceedings."

A copy of the custody agreement obtained by the Deseret News also included a handwritten finding that the girl in the photo lived in

the same building as the Jessops. It was initialed by all of the parties in the case. On the witness stand last week, Bradshaw had struggled to name anyone who lived in the house with her except her husband and children.

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