1 of 2
Mike Terry, Deseret News
Willie Jessop and two FLDS women arrive at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, Monday.

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Barbara Jessop took the Fifth more than 50 times under intense questions from CPS lawyers Monday afternoon.

A wife of Merril Jessop, the leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Texas, is fighting efforts by Child Protective Services to place two of her children back into foster care.

During questioning, a soft-spoken but stoic Jessop said that her 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son have been living with her in San Antonio since they were released from state custody two months ago. Asked if there was ever a time the children had stayed alone without her present, Jessop said, "I don't want to answer any more questions. I stand on the Fifth."

She repeated that throughout dozens of questions with the exception of one.

"Does a parent have a duty to protect their children from harm?" a CPS attorney asked her.

"Yes," Jessop replied.

She refused to answer dozens more questions posed at her, including whether Merril Jessop was the father of her children.

CPS attorneys called Carolyn Jessop, a best-selling author and one of Merril Jessop's ex-wives, on the stand. In dramatic testimony, she described her marriage and accused Merril and Barbara Jessop of abusing their children. She described "prayer times" where children were berated and scolded until they would cry.

"I remember them more as torture sessions than prayer," she said.

Carolyn Jessop described her former "sister wife" beating one of Barbara's children with a broom as the family sang, "When there's love at home" during a Sunday School session.

But under cross examination from Barbara Jessop's attorney, Carolyn Jessop acknowledged that her own 19-year-old daughter, Betty, went back to the FLDS Church sometime after Carolyn fled the church and the church's community in southern Utah.

She also acknowledged she saw Barbara do things that would be considered "good parenting."

Barbara Jessop's lawyer, Gonzalo Rios, suggested that Carolyn Jessop was testifying for publicity and money. Carolyn Jessop acknowledged receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars for writing the best-selling book "Escape" but noted that she has not been able to work for the past five years, having to care for her children.

Many of the incidents Carolyn Jessop described also happened nearly 20 years ago, Rios said.

"Have you ever hit your children?" Rios asked her.

"A few times before I left (the FLDS Church and community)," Jessop replied. "I didn't like hitting. After I left, there's never been an episode."

Monday's court hearing wrapped up about 7 p.m. Texas time and will be continued Tuesday morning. The hearings involve seven FLDS children the state is trying to return to its custody.

The group is part of hundreds taken in April from the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch who were subsequently ordered returned a couple of months later.

Two cases involving three children are being negotiated in hopes of a possible settlement. Texas CPS dropped one child — a 17-year-old boy — from another case being heard now.

"We're hopeful that there will be an agreement and that the judge will hear it," said CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner, referencing the cases under negotiation.

Lawyers for Barbara Jessop are attacking the state's evidence seized from the ranch, including marriage certificates, bishops' records, photographs and letters. One of the children in question is a girl who CPS alleges at age 12 was married to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

However, Rios argued in Judge Barbara Walther's courtroom that the state is trying to relitigate the case with evidence that was not entered into court before.

"They are not alleging anything that's happened since these children have been with my client," Rios said, arguing that CPS claims are inadequate.

In response, CPS argued that they have tried to tailor their cases to be "fact specific and not in general to the FLDS."

Another case expected to be heard today involves children of Dr. Lloyd Hammon Barlow.

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop noted that some members of the families involved in the custody cases being heard today have been nonsuited, while others continue to be litigated.

"How do they terrorize one family against another?" asked Willie Jessop. "One family, you are fine to live with, but you are not fine with another. If you was a dad, how would you feel?"

CPS is seeking to place the children back into foster care, alleging their mothers have failed to protect them from men involved in underage marriages.

In April, hundreds of children were seized in a raid on the ranch in nearby Eldorado. Two months later, the 440-plus children were returned after two appellate courts ruled the state failed to act appropriately and did not show the children were in imminent danger of abuse.

The nation's biggest child custody case has taken many twists and turns lately with 102 cases being "nonsuited" in which CPS is seeking to end court oversight of the children. There are 364 cases that are pending involving children from the Utah-based polygamist sect.

The raid on the ranch was the result of a phone call — now believed to be a hoax — from a pregnant 16-year-old girl who said she was in an abusive marriage to an older man. Once at the ranch, CPS investigators said they saw other signs of abuse, prompting Walther to order the removal of all the children while the state agency investigated.

Meanwhile, a Texas grand jury is scheduled to meet on Thursday to hear evidence of crimes involving FLDS members. Six men, including Warren Jeffs, have been indicted on charges ranging from sexual assault of children to bigamy and failure to report child abuse.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com