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Polygamist ranch leader indicted

Polygamist ranch leader indicted



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SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- The 72-year-old presiding elder of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints polygamist sect and two other church members surrendered to authorities Monday to face felony charges relating to the underage marriage of girls to older men.

Frederick "Merril" Jessop, a leader of the FLDS Church, faces one count of conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony involving a minor, a felony.

One of his daughters was allegedly married to jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs at 12 and is now the only child from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in foster care after her mother refused to cooperate with child welfare authorities.

A grand jury in Eldorado, Texas, indicted Jessop, Jeffs and two other members of FLDS on Nov. 12. Jeffs, convicted in Utah and awaiting trial in Arizona on charges related to underage marriages of sect girls, faces charges in Texas of sexual assault of a child and bigamy.

The two other men who turned themselves in Monday are:
-- Wendell Loy Nielsen, 68, charged with three counts of bigamy. The indictment includes few details, but church records released as part of a separate child custody case list 21 women married to Nielsen in August 2007.
-- Leroy Johnson Steed, 42, who is charged with sexual assault of a child, bigamy and tampering with evidence. Church records show Steed married to a 16-year-old girl in March 2007.

All three men were booked Monday and then released after posting bond.

"We've said all along we're not running. We're going to take it head on," said FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop. "The allegations they're making and what they're trying to do is nothing more than harassment."

Church records and journal entries released in the custody case indicate several of Merril Jessop's daughters were married to men in the church when they were 16 or younger.

One of Merril Jessop's wives, Carolyn, fled the FLDS community on the Arizona-Utah line with her children in 2003 and wrote a best-selling book, "Escape."

In all, 12 FLDS men have been indicted since Texas authorities raided the Yearning For Zion Ranch in April looking for evidence of underage girls forced into marriages and sex with older men.

Generally, teens younger than 17 cannot consent to sex with an adult under Texas law. Bigamy is also illegal. While the FLDS plural marriages are not legal marriages, Texas law forbids even purporting to marry.

Willie Jessop said the state is making criminal cases to justify what he called the botched child custody case. Child welfare authorities have dropped most of the cases involving the 439 children taken from the YFZ Ranch; only about three dozen remain under court oversight.

The child welfare case was prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hotline from someone claiming to be a teen mother who was abused. Those calls are now being investigated as a hoax. The number used to make the calls belonged to Rozita Swinton, a 33-year-old Colorado woman who has a history of making false abuse claims and has been ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation in a separate case there.

A vocal anti-polygamy activist, Flora Jessop, has said she talked to Swinton around the time of the hotline calls. Jeff's attorney in Arizona, Michael Piccarreta, was scheduled to depose Flora Jessop about those calls on Monday, but Flora Jessop refused to answer questions without a television reporter present, he said.

Piccarreta plans to depose Texas law enforcement about the raid next month because he believes the Texas raid has tainted the Arizona case.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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Michelle Roberts Writer

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