Hearing to resume in new polygamist sect case


A judge was expected to rule today in the custody hearing of a girl who allegedly was given into marriage at age 12 to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

Barbara Jessop is fighting a request by the state to take away her now 14-year-old daughter and the girl's 11-year-old brother. Witnesses for the state argued Monday that Jessop isn't a suitable caregiver because the girl and several other children were involved in underage marriages. The 14-year-old allegedly married Jeffs, 52, in 2006.

Jessop's attorney, Gonzalo Rios, rested his case without calling witnesses today, saying the state failed to show it made a reasonable effort to keep the kids in their family's home as required by law.

Jessop has 10 children, and Ruby Gutierrez, an investigator for Child Protective Services, testified Monday that two adult sons took underage brides and three daughters were given in marriage when they were underage. The children's father, Fredrick "Merril" Jessop, allegedly blessed the girls' marriages.

On Monday, Barbara Jessop refused to answer roughly 50 questions asked by attorneys for Child Protective Services, including what constituted abuse, the names of her children and her relationship with their father.

"I stand on the Fifth (Amendment)," she said repeatedly in a flat tone.

Rios said Jessop was exercising her right against self-incrimination because of the continuing criminal investigation. Two of Merril Jessop's sons have been indicted on charges of sexual assault of a child, as has Jeffs.

In documents submitted with the state's custody petition, the 14-year-old girl is quoted as telling a caseworker that a young teenage girl marrying an older man "can't be a crime because Heavenly Father is the one that tells Warren when a girl is ready to get married."

At the hearing, Carolyn Jessop, a previous wife of Merril Jessop and now a best-selling author, testified about her experience before she ran away five years ago.

Carolyn Jessop said Merril Jessop harshly disciplined her son, who was — at the time, by alternately spanking him and putting his face under a running faucet until it turned blue. Merril Jessop, who did not attend the hearing Monday, allegedly described the discipline as "breaking them" and used it on his children when they were young to teach them to fear authority.

Rios was expected to call Carolyn Jessop's 19-year-old daughter to testify today. The daughter, who was taken from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by Carolyn Jessop when she was 13, returned as an adult.

Child welfare authorities have been investigating the cases of 440 children since the Texas Supreme Court ordered that the children removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in April be returned to their parents. The state has asked the court to dismiss cases involving 76 children, including nine who have turned 18 since the custody case began; the remaining cases are still under investigation.

Monday's hearing was the first state effort since the court ruling to retake custody of FLDS children. The high court said the agency previously overreached in sweeping all the FLDS children into state custody, noting it showed no more than a handful of teenage girls were abused or were at risk of abuse.

The FLDS believes polygamy brings glory in heaven. It is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Jeffs, convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah and awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona, was indicted along with four followers in Texas last month on charges of sexual assault of a child. One of the followers was also indicted on a bigamy charge and a sixth man was indicted on three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse.

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