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Pat Reavy, Deseret News
FLDS member Willie Jessop talks to media in El Dorado. He noted girls and women waiting to testify were kept outside in the heat.

ELDORADO, Texas — Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs could be served with a grand jury indictment today in his Arizona jail cell, charging him here with sexual assault, a first-degree felony.

A Schleicher County grand jury indicted Jeffs late Tuesday, alongside five other FLDS members. Their indictments remain sealed because they have not been taken into custody.

"I believe they're not in the area," Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran told the Deseret News Tuesday night.

Four of those men were indicted on charges of sexual abuse of a child under the age of 17 and one man received an additional charge of bigamy. Those charges are all first-degree felonies that carry a potential of 99 years in prison or even a life sentence. The last man was indicted on three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse, which could garner six months in jail.

"We are certainly shocked," FLDS member Willie Jessop said Tuesday night. "We'll face those allegations as soon as we know who they're looking for. We think it's ridiculous."

The indictment accuses Jeffs of committing the offense around Jan. 14, 2005, in Schleicher County. Jeffs sexually assaulted a girl under age 17 whom under Texas law he "was prohibited from marrying or purporting to marry" or "living under the appearance of being married," the indictment said.

Around the same time in 2005, Jeffs was reportedly at the YFZ Ranch dedicating the foundation of the group's temple. Jeffs was arrested in August 2006 in a traffic stop outside Las Vegas, then a fugitive on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

The YFZ ranch was raided in April, and hundreds of boxes of evidence were seized as Texas child welfare workers and law enforcement investigated allegations of abuse.

"I just believe the state of Texas is going to continue to move forward on this and continue investigation and identify crimes that have been committed," Doran said.

Reaction

Bail for Jeffs was set at $100,000, even though the FLDS leader is already in custody in Kingman, Ariz., where he is facing trial on sexual misconduct charges accusing him of performing underage marriages. Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year of rape as an accomplice, for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin, and sentenced to a pair of 5-to-life prison terms.

Elissa Wall, who was the star witness in the Utah case, declined to comment on the indictment, her attorney said Tuesday.

"As her lawyer, I'm not surprised," Roger Hoole said. "I am confident that as law enforcement follows the evidence, they will be able to further address the systematic child abuse that occurs in the FLDS community."

Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney who has acted as a spokesman for the FLDS, said he was not surprised by the indictments. "The real question is, what evidence would they have to support a conviction?" he said.

"The indictments issued today are part of an ongoing and continuing criminal investigation," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said.

The grand jury is expected to reconvene on Aug. 21.

Abbott would not comment on where he believed the five men in question were but stressed that authorities were launching an "aggressive effort to apprehend" them. The attorney general said he would also seek to have Jeffs extradited to Texas as quickly as possible.

"We will work with prosecutors to locate the indicted parties," Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange said in an e-mail to the Deseret News.

In Utah, Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith said he had spoken with Doran but was not asked to locate anyone related to the grand jury indictments in the FLDS enclave of Hildale.

Speculation, tension

Tuesday's grand jury proceedings were full of drama as speculation and tension ran high about possible charges.

Some of that speculation was sparked by the appearance of Abbott arriving at the start of the day. Judge Barbara Walther was also seen at the building where the grand jury was meeting, but it was unclear what her purpose was there. Walther has been at the heart of most of the drama since the initial raid on the YFZ Ranch, presiding over the massive custody case involving hundreds of FLDS children.

Sheriff's deputies and Texas State Troopers surrounded the complex Tuesday. Yellow police tape encompassed the entire block, pushing news media even farther back than they were at last month's grand jury proceedings.

About a half-dozen FLDS women and girls in their traditional dresses walked in and out of the Schleicher County Memorial Building. Unlike the hearing last month when Teresa Jeffs, the daughter of Warren Jeffs, climbed a tree, the mood among the women was much more low-key and almost somber.

Most of the women sat together either under a tree or on the lawn of the complex that holds the courthouse and the sheriff's office. One by one, they were called into the building next to the courthouse to testify. Their attorneys would follow them to the doors, but they were not allowed to accompany their clients inside. Some of the women were led in and out of the building several times.

There was a flurry of paperwork at one point. Attorneys and Texas Child Protective Services workers carried papers back and forth from the courthouse to the grand jury's building, particularly during the time when Walther was there.

Teresa Jeffs, who turns 17 this weekend, was summoned inside. It was to be her second time to testify before the grand jury. She was there for about 20 minutes.

Willie Jessop was on his way to the courthouse Tuesday morning when he was pulled over by police and handed a subpoena to testify. Prior to the indictments being issued, Jessop said what happened Tuesday was "continued harassment of the FLDS."

Jessop noted how the girls and women waiting to testify were kept outside in extremely warm temperatures all day. A photographer from the sheriff's office documented their every movement, he said.

Jessop feared the "harassment" harassment would continue Thursday in Washington, D.C. The people being called to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee are all anti-FLDS, Jessop said.

"It's not good faith when they intentionally seek all false information," he said. "They only want to solicit information that is one-sided."

Abbott is also on the witness list for the hearing into crimes associated with polygamy. Jessop was also planning to be there, even though no FLDS members have been invited to testify.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com; bwinslow@desnews.com