Prosecutors in Utah are beginning to get a glimpse of some of the massive amounts of evidence seized by law enforcement during the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Texas.
But any hopes of building criminal cases may evaporate if lawyers for the polygamous sect succeed in getting the search warrants tossed.
"We're certainly interested, and we will follow up on that stuff," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. "If we're not allowed to keep that evidence or use it in criminal prosecutions, then we're back to square one."
Among the hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence seized from the Yearning For Zion Ranch's temple grounds were marriage records and dictations by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
Some of the evidence has become public since it was entered into court records in the separate child custody battle over children from the YFZ Ranch. Exhibits entered into a recent court case and obtained by the Deseret News show at least three underage marriages took place in the FLDS enclave of Hildale, Utah.
One of the Utah marriages, Texas child welfare authorities claim, took place in 2004 between FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and a girl who was only 13.
Texas lawyers for the FLDS Church recently renewed their challenge to the search warrants.
"Both warrants having now been returned (the FLDS Church) ask the court. ... to conduct a hearing, take testimony and determine whether 'good ground' existed for these warrants and the searches conducted pursuant thereto, and to take measures to protect matters of privilege and privacy in the property seized," FLDS attorney Cynthia Orr wrote in a June motion renewing their challenge.
A judge in San Angelo has scheduled an Oct. 1 hearing on the matter. Lawyers for the church claim the search was illegal, having been based on a hoax phone call that launched the raid, and what was seized may fall under priest-penitent privilege.
Texas authorities have declined to comment on their evidence. Shurtleff said he believes the search warrants will be upheld.
On April 3, Texas Child Protective Services and law enforcement responded to the YFZ Ranch on a call from someone claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old in an abusive marriage to an older man. The girl was never found, and the call is believed to be a hoax. Authorities claim that once there, they saw other signs of abuse.
That prompted a judge to order all the children removed and placed into foster care. The 440 children were returned to their families a couple of months later after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state acted improperly and there was no imminent danger.
More than 200 children have been dropped from court oversight as the child custody case drags on. Child welfare investigations and a separate criminal probe continue.
A 33-year-old Colorado Springs woman remains under suspicion about her possible role in the call that sparked the raid. The Deseret News reported last month that Rozita Swinton may be subpoenaed to testify for the FLDS Church in the Oct. 1 hearing.
Prosecutors in several states may seek to use the seized evidence in ongoing and future criminal cases. A grand jury in Eldorado, Texas, has indicted six FLDS members, including Jeffs, on charges linked to underage marriages.
Law enforcement from Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Texas have begun sharing information via database after a June meeting in Las Vegas on polygamy-related crimes. Getting documents and witnesses has historically been a struggle.
"It's been two years since the arrest (of Warren Jeffs) and we're still fighting over evidence in the Escalade," Shurtleff said, referring to the SUV that Jeffs was riding in when he was arrested in August 2006.
Until the raid on the YFZ Ranch.
In Arizona, Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith is seeking to use some of the evidence as part of his prosecution of Jeffs on sexual misconduct charges. The FLDS leader is accused of performing more underage marriages there.
Jeffs' defense attorneys are already planning to challenge the use of any evidence in his case there.
"It is becoming more and more evident that the Texas raid was based on a hoax telephone call containing false accusations of abuse," attorneys Richard Wright and Michael Piccarreta wrote in court papers recently filed in Mohave County Superior Court.
"Published newspaper articles indicate that similar charges were made regarding the Colorado City/Hildale community, and were determined to be unworthy of belief. Indeed, it is believed that Colorado authorities are investigating criminal charges of false reporting to a law enforcement agency in connection with that matter."
Jeffs, 52, is already serving a pair of 5-to-life sentences after being convicted of rape as an accomplice for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has been conducting a number of investigations into Jeffs and the FLDS Church including an organized crime probe."As far as all the financial documents, it's all part of that evidence," Shurtleff said, referring to the evidence from the YFZ Ranch. "Our desires to investigate the white collar stuff, the RICO and money laundering, if we can't get that evidence, then we're nowhere."
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