MIDLAND, Texas — A former lieutenant to polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was convicted Wednesday of illegally taking three wives besides his own, despite his attorney's argument that "celestial marriages" weren't forbidden by state law.
A West Texas jury found Wendell Loy Nielsen guilty of three counts of bigamy. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Nielsen had no immediate reaction as the verdict was read. The jury deliberated for about 90 minutes late Tuesday and early Wednesday.
Nielsen is the former president of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, a sect that believes polygamy leads to exaltation in heaven. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
Nielsen was one of 12 people indicted after a 2008 raid on the polygamist sect's compound in West Texas known as the Yearning for Zion ranch. Prosecutors showed photos of the YFZ ranch in Eldorado, Texas. They also named the three women they believed Nielsen had married in 2005 besides his legal wife.
Handwritten family records seized during the 2008 raid suggest Nielsen may have taken as many as 21 wives.
The compound had a gleaming white temple, a school and a guard tower. Prosecutors also showed photos of the home where Nielsen allegedly lived.
Several law enforcement officers who participated in the raid testified, as did Rebecca Musser, a former plural wife of FLDS sect founder Rulon Jeffs, the father of Warren Jeffs. Musser described the handshake used in the sect to "seal" plural marriages and said women were expected to submit to their husbands' demands.
David Botsford, Nielsen's attorney, did not dispute that FLDS bonded its members in "celestial marriages," but said those weren't the same as a legal marriage.
"There has been no evidence that the sealing would constitute a marriage under Texas law," Botsford said in his closing argument.
He also argued that FLDS beliefs held that a woman needed to have a man in charge.
"It's all for a woman's eternal salvation," Botsford said.
Jeffs, the spiritual head of the church's roughly 10,000 followers, was convicted last year of sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison. Others indicted after the raid have received lengthy prison sentences.
Authorities in the raid found women dressed in frontier-style dresses and with hairstyles from the 19th century, as well as underage girls who were clearly pregnant. The call that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax. More than 400 children taken from the compound were later returned by court order.
Against his attorney's advice, Nielsen rejected a guilty plea late last year of 10 years of probation because he thought the requirements were too restrictive. He would have been required to stay away from playgrounds and people younger than 17. He also would have been barred from holding a position in the FLDS Church.
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