SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - Flora Jessop never believed that Warren Steed Jeffs, the man she was taught to revere as son and heir of the “prophet, seer and revelator of God,” would ever face justice — let alone Texas justice.
She didn’t believe it when she was 13 and sexually assaulted beneath a smiling photograph of Jeffs inside the Hildale, Utah compound run by the breakaway Mormon sect where she was born to a polygamist family.
And she didn’t believe it three years later, when she was forced by leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) to marry her older cousin.
But Jeffs, 55, will stand trial in Texas starting Monday on charges of child sexual assault.
“What Warren Jeffs’ trial symbolizes to those of us from the FLDS is that this trial is going to be justice for hundreds of girls who have been in the same position,” Jessop told Reuters.
Jeffs’ breakaway brand of Mormonism, which has been condemned and outlawed by the mainstream Mormon Church, promotes marriages between older men and young girls. It also teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives.
The trial stems from his “ecclesiastical” or “spiritual” marriage to two girls, aged 12 and 14, at the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ) in West Texas that Jeffs set up in 2002 when he took control of the sect after his father, longtime FLDS “Prophet” and insurance salesman Rulon Jeffs, died.
It was not a legal civil marriage with a license, due to the girls’ ages and the fact that at the time Jeffs was ‘married’ to several other women.
Jeffs also faces charges of bigamy, which is a felony in Texas, but won’t face trial on those counts until this fall.
That Jeffs, once one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, faces a Texas trial at all is due to a tip authorities received about the YFZ compound and to the perseverance of state Attorney General Greg Abbott.
In 2008, shortly after Texas Rangers raided the ranch, seizing evidence of plural marriage and child sexual assault and taking 430 children into protective custody, Abbott vowed to prosecute Jeffs and other FLDS men “to the fullest extent of the law.”
When the Texas raid took place, Jeffs was in prison in Utah, serving a 10-year sentence for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her older first cousin. The state of Arizona was waiting to press similar charges.
Last year, the Utah Supreme Court overturned Jeffs’ 2007 conviction on rape-related charges, citing problems with jury instructions. He was extradited to Texas, where Abbott had secured major sexual assault indictments against him.
Awaiting trial, Jeffs has hired and fired attorneys and filed motions to dismiss the judge and to move the trial.
Eric Nichols, the long-time Assistant U.S. Attorney and now Deputy Texas Attorney General who is lead prosecutor in the case, says the motions are delay tactics.
Jeffs is expected to argue that the raid was illegal because the woman who telephoned a domestic violence hotline, claiming to be a 16-year-old girl being sexually assaulted, was in fact a 33-year-old woman. The man she named as her abuser, who is an FLDS member, was not in Texas at the time.
If the raid were deemed illegal, that could exclude much of the evidence prosecutors hope to use against him at trial.
The trial could take as long as a month, with jury selection possibly taking a week. Some 700 potential jurors have been summoned.
Deric Walpole, Jeffs’ attorney, says he will ask that the trial move out of Tom Green County, due to all the publicity.
The judge who is set to hear Jeffs’ trial also heard the legal cases of the 430 seized children. Images of FLDS women in their floor-length prairie dresses gathering at the courthouse appeared in newspapers and on television programs worldwide.
Jessop, who escaped from the FLDS after her forced marriage and has become a leading critic of the group, said she hopes the jury remembers that the two young girls Jeffs is charged with sexually assaulting, who have been placed in the custody of relatives, are not the sect’s only young victims.
“This isn’t about religion,” she said. “This is about justice. It comes down to the abuse of children.”
Editing by James B. Kelleher, Tim Gaynor and Ellen Wulfhorst