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Warren Jeffs sentenced to life in prison after 30-minute deliberation

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 9 2011 7:07 p.m. MDT

FLDS leader Warren Jeffs is walked from the Tom Green County Courthouse, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011 after a jury took just 30 minutes to give him life in prison for one count of sexual assault of a child and one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child. (Patrick Dove, AP) FLDS leader Warren Jeffs is walked from the Tom Green County Courthouse, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011 after a jury took just 30 minutes to give him life in prison for one count of sexual assault of a child and one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child. (Patrick Dove, AP)

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs recorded everything he said.

Thousands of pages, written with Biblical flourish, about God wanting him to take 12-year-old wives. About those girls needing to sexually please him. About men he banished for not building his temple fast enough.

Facing his last chance to keep his freedom, Jeffs didn't say a word.

He was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for sexually assaulting one of his child brides — among 24 underage wives prosecutors said Jeffs collected — and received the maximum 20-year punishment on a separate child sex conviction. Jeffs, 55, will not be eligible for parole until he is at least 100 years old.

The head of the Utah-based Fundamentalist LDS Church made no plea for leniency. He ordered his attorneys not to call witnesses during the sentencing phase and forbade them from making a closing argument Tuesday.

Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, right, is placed into the back of a waiting car in San Angelo, Texas Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. The polygamist leader was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, right, is placed into the back of a waiting car in San Angelo, Texas Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. The polygamist leader was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed "spiritual marriages." (Patrick Dove, AP)

Less than 30 minutes later, jurors returned with the harshest punishment possible.

"He's a pervert, and the crazy thing is, he perverted his own religion," his sister, Elaine Jeffs, said after the sentencing. Nearby, police escorted her brother into a waiting patrol car.

Elaine Jeffs, who left the FLDS in 1984, watched the end to an often bizarre and graphic two-week trial that included one of Jeffs' top lieutenants and state caseworkers who rounded up nearly 400 children during a 2008 raid at the sect's Texas ranch. There were a handful of spectators as well, including a retired couple who also sat in on the Casey Anthony trial in Florida.

Despite the convictions and life sentence, Jeffs remains in control of the FLDS and its roughly 10,000 followers. His most devoted consider him God's spokesman on Earth and a prophet, but his followers were absent in court for the bulk of the trial.

Rebecca Musser, former wife of FLDS president Rulon Jeffs, makes a statement to the media after the conviction and sentencing of current FLDS leader Warren Jeffs in San Angelo, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed Rebecca Musser, former wife of FLDS president Rulon Jeffs, makes a statement to the media after the conviction and sentencing of current FLDS leader Warren Jeffs in San Angelo, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed "spiritual marriages." (Patrick Dove, AP)

Jeffs sometimes was, too. He boycotted the sentencing phase, remaining in a courthouse holding cell, and refused to answer state District Judge Barbara Walther when directly questioned Tuesday. Jeffs had represented himself during the conviction phase, and often interrupted court proceedings by contending that he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs.

The FLDS Church believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. In closing arguments, prosecutors rejected the idea that the sect had been targeted.

"The evidence in this case shows that this isn't a prosecution of a people," prosecutor Eric Nichols said. "This is a prosecution to protect people."

Willie Jessop, a former FLDS spokesman who railed against Texas authorities following the raid but has since disavowed Jeffs, said the heinousness of the charges has left a fractured FLDS community. He said he wants to see the towers at the Yearning For Zion ranch torn down.

Warren Jeffs, leader of the FLDS Church, left, is led out of the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. The polygamous sect leader was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed Warren Jeffs, leader of the FLDS Church, left, is led out of the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. The polygamous sect leader was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed "spiritual marriages." (Patrick Dove, AP)

"I've never lived at the ranch. I will go back there long enough to make sure those guard towers come down and the people are there because they want to be there and not because they're forced to be there," he said.

"I want to make sure that every mom down there has their cellphones and they have Internet and that they have choices — the same choices that I enjoy and you enjoy as an American."

Jessop was reportedly among several men — including YFZ ranch leader Merrill Jessop — who were kicked out of the FLDS Church early this year by Jeffs. When asked if he would be welcomed back to the ranch, Jessop hinted that it would depend on the residents' loyalty to Jeffs.

"If you're part of this kind of authority, no. If you're part of what the mothers and children and people I've always represent and will represent, I'll say I'll be welcomed back," he said.

Prosecution witness Brent Jeffs, right, walks into the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. He testified that his uncle, Warren Jeffs, sodomized him when he was 5 years old. Brent Jeffs, now 28, said Warren Jeffs told him during the alleged assault that Prosecution witness Brent Jeffs, right, walks into the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. He testified that his uncle, Warren Jeffs, sodomized him when he was 5 years old. Brent Jeffs, now 28, said Warren Jeffs told him during the alleged assault that "this is God's work." Jeffs was never charged with sexually assaulting his nephew. (Patrick Dove, AP)

Among the trove of evidence against Jeffs taken from the ranch were photos of him kissing the young brides he took in "spiritual marriages" and scratchy audiotapes of him giving girls explicit instructions for sex. His journals speak of casting out men for not being humble, written around the same time Jeffs was photographed in a leather jacket atop a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

"Everyone in the church has got to take a responsibility for what has taken place," Jessop said. "In order for this to be fixed going forward, we have to take responsibility. This is a crisis for every single member in the church."

Jeffs rose to power in 2002 following his father's death, and has run the church despite being in police custody in either Arizona or Texas since 2006.

He'll be more restricted in whatever Texas prison he ends up in. Jeffs was flown to a prison intake across the state hours after being sentenced. It's there that prison officials will decide where he will serve his sentence and whether to assign him to the general prison population, safekeeping or protective custody. His telephone calls will be limited to a list of 10 people, and Jeffs will be prohibited from receiving any visitors under age 17.

Jeffs stood quietly Tuesday as the sentence was read. He must serve at least 45 years in prison: at least 35 years of a life sentence on one of the child sex charges, and at least 10 years on the other.

During the trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old.

"If the world knew what I was doing, they would hang me from the highest tree," Jeffs wrote in 2005, according to one of his journals.

Nichols referred to that passage in his closing Tuesday.

"No, Mr. Jeffs, unlike what you wrote in your priesthood records ... we don't hang convicts anymore from the highest tree. Not even child molesters," Nichols said.

Jeffs spent years crisscrossing the country as a fugitive who eventually made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list before his capture in 2006. Former church members testified that Jeffs ruled with a heavy and abusive hand, and excommunicated 60 church members he saw as a threat to his leadership, breaking up 300 families while stripping them of property and "reassigning" wives and children.

Among Jeffs' most eccentric orders was banning the color red. Rebecca Musser, a former FLDS member who was once a wife of Jeffs' father, showed up to the sentencing in a deep red dress.

Prosecutors suggested that the polygamist leader told the girls they needed to have sex with him — in what Jeffs called "heavenly" or "celestial" sessions — in order to atone for sins in his community. Several times in his journals, Jeffs wrote of God telling him to take more and more young girls as brides "who can be worked with and easily taught."

When police raided the group's ranch, they found women dressed in frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century as well as underage girls who were clearly pregnant. The call that spurred the raid turned out to be a hoax, and hundreds of children were returned to their families.

Documents in evidence said Jeffs had been a part of at least 550 bigamous marriages, and that 67 of those had been to underage girls. Documents stated Jeffs had himself taken 78 illegal wives, 24 of them underage, with some having come from Canada and some as young as 12 years old. In one instance of underage marriage, he married two 12-year-old girls to himself in one day, the documents record.

Jeffs is the eighth FLDS man convicted since the raid. Previous sentences ranged from six to 75 years in prison.

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