ELDORADO, Texas — The first polygamist sect member to face criminal trial following the raid at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas last year was convicted Thursday of sexual assault of a child.
Jurors took a little more than two hours to convict Raymond Jessop, 38, of sexually assaulting a teen with whom he had a so-called "spiritual marriage."
Jessop allegedly has nine wives. He faces a bigamy charge, but that case is to be tried later. The girl in the assault case, now 21, was previously in a "spiritual marriage" with Jessop's brother before being "reassigned" to Jessop when she was 15, according to documents seized at the ranch. She became pregnant at age 16.
Jessop, who had been free on bond during the trial, was immediately handcuffed and led across the Schleicher County Courthouse square to the jail after his conviction. Jurors were expected to return to court Monday to begin deciding his sentence. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Lawyers in the case declined to comment on the verdict Thursday.
During closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols stood before photos of the young mother and toddler in prairie dresses. He pointed to DNA evidence and church documents as he urged jurors to convict Jessop.
"There is a sound foundation based not just in documents — based in DNA evidence for which the documents serve as corroboration ... that Raymond Merril Jessop behind those gates, behind that guard house, behind those walls, sexually assaulted" the teen, he said.
Jessop's attorney, Mark Stevens, has argued that prosecutors failed to show that any assault happened in Texas — a necessary element in demonstrating the court's jurisdiction.
"There is no way one can draw a reasonable inference ... that this alleged event must have occurred on that ranch," he said during a hearing Thursday. He said prosecutors instead relied on only small snippets of documents to place Jessop and the teen at the ranch run by the Fundamentalist LDS Church at the time of the alleged assault. Many of the documents were seized from enormous cement vaults inside the temple and temple annex at the ranch.
"It's dangerous when we start trying to convict people based on documents and we're not sure where the documents came from," said Stevens, noting there was no evidence Jessop ever had seen the documents used by prosecutors to place him at the ranch in 2004 and 2005.28 comments on this story
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream LDS Church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and does not recognize the FLDS.
Historically based around the Arizona-Utah state line, the FLDS bought a ranch about 150 miles northwest of San Antonio, in Eldorado, six years ago, and began building massive homes and a towering temple.
The raid of the insular group made national headlines as women in prairie dresses and braids were moved off the ranch, and child welfare officials took custody of their children in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.