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Polygamist sect leader faces new charges

An elder of a polygamist sect and two other church members surrendered to authorities Monday to face felony charges relating to the marriage of underage girls to older men.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An elder of a polygamist sect and two other church members surrendered to authorities Monday to face felony charges relating to the marriage of underage girls to older men.

Frederick "Merril" Jessop, 72, a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who oversaw its Yearning For Zion Ranch in west Texas, faces one count of conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony involving a minor.

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

In all, 12 FLDS men have been indicted since Texas authorities raided the ranch in April looking for evidence of underage girls forced into marriages and sex with older men. Hundreds of children were placed in state custody for weeks before they were ordered to be returned to their parents.

A grand jury in Eldorado, Texas, indicted Jeffs, Jessop, Wendell Loy Nielsen and Leroy Johnson Steed on Nov. 12. Only Jeffs' name had been released before Monday, when the other three men were booked and released after posting bond.

"We're not running'
"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."

Nielsen, 68, is 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, is charged with sexual assault of a child, bigamy and tampering with evidence. Church records show that Steed was married to a 16-year-old girl in March 2007.

Jeffs was convicted in Utah and is awaiting trial in Arizona on charges related to underage marriages of sect girls. He faces charges in Texas of sexual assault of a child and bigamy.

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."

Law forbids purporting to marry
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 a 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 FLDS, which believes polygamy bring glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.