By Will Weissert
SAN ANGELO, Texas — A judge on Wednesday dealt a blow to the defense of polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs, refusing to suppress evidence police seized during a 2008 raid on his sect's remote West Texas compound.
District Judge Barbara Walther's decision clears the way for a small mountain of documents — including marriage and birth records, and thousands of pages of Jeffs' own writing in personal journals — to be presented to the jury during Jeffs' sexual assault trial. Jurors also may be able to see DNA evidence collected from children living on the compound.
Opening statements in the case are now set for Thursday morning, after one more suppression hearing.
This time, Jeffs' attorneys are seeking the suppression of evidence recovered when Jeffs was arrested, after a 2006 traffic stop along a highway outside Apex, Nevada. Walther said she would hear arguments on that for about an hour before the jury is seated, then wanted both sides to be ready with opening statements.
Jeffs, head of the Utah-based Fundamentalist LDS Church, is charged with sexually assaulting two underage girls. If convicted, he could receive a maximum sentence of 119 years to life in prison.
He also is scheduled to go to trial on a separate bigamy charge in October. Jeffs' sect believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and his high-powered defense team — which has included seven attorneys — is being financed by an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.
Jeffs was in hiding and had made the FBI's "Most-Wanted" list by August 2006, when Nevada highway patrolman Eddie Dutchover pulled over a new, red Cadillac Escalade for having an obstructed license plate. A tall, lanky passenger in the back said his name was John Findley, then nervously began eating a salad. When pressed, the man finally blurted out his real, full name: Warren Steed Jeffs.
The vehicle was registered to another church member and the driver, Warren's brother Isaac, authorized authorities to search the Escalade. They uncovered laptops and thumb-drives and are believed to have found audio recordings were Jeffs admits to marrying underage girls.
Jeffs' attorneys don't want that evidence admitted in his trial, and Thursday's hearing is to determine whether Jeffs has the standing — as someone other than the driver or owner — to challenge the search of the vehicle. Expected to testify are Dutchover and an FBI agent who was called to the scene the night of the arrest.
But Jeffs and the FLDS didn't become a national story until nearly two years later in April 2008, when the FBI and police SWAT teams raided the church's Yearning For Zion compound outside tiny Eldorado, about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the ranch appeared on airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.
Police moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls were being forced into polygamist marriages. Based on that report, Walther signed the search warrant authorizing the raid.
The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado. But once on the ranch, police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant and were told about polygamist marriages — prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.
Dallas-based defense attorney Robert Udashen argued Wednesday that police had indications the call was phony, but hid them from Walther to ensure the search was authorized.
He said the call was made from a blocked phone number, that the caller gave only a last name for her alleged abusive husband living on the compound, and that she claimed to have been beaten and hospitalized — even though a cursory investigation at the local hospital would prove that story didn't check out.
"Those facts were recklessly omitted," from documents authorities gave Walther, Udashen said, adding that an investigation taking barely two days would have proved the caller an impostor.
When Walther asked if police were supposed to sit back and leave a potential victim at risk for two days while they investigated, Udashen responded, "This wasn't a victim. They should have known that with some basic law enforcement investigation."
After more than an hour of argument from both sides and about 30 minutes of deliberation, Walther denied the motion to suppress evidence. The second hearing on the evidence from the Nevada traffic stop was delayed until Thursday only because Dutchover and the FBI agent were not yet in San Angelo to testify.
"Obviously, I disagree with the ruling," Udashen said afterward. "That's an issue that will be taken up on appeal if Mr. Jeffs is convicted."