AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas officials on Wednesday moved in court to seize a 1,600-acre West Texas ranch where officials say jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs sexually assaulted children.
Sect members used proceeds from money laundering to buy the ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and illegally harbored Jeffs there while he was a federal fugitive, authorities said in court papers supporting seizure of the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch.
The attorney general’s office said Jeffs had sought a remote location for a polygamist compound where he and other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints could sexually assault children without interference from law enforcement.
A lawyer for the sect could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. The ranch is occupied, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said, but he added it was not known how many people live there.
Jeffs, 56, is in prison in Texas after being sentenced to life plus 20 years in 2011 on sexual assault convictions related to his marriages with two underage sect girls. He is said to remain in control of the sect despite his incarceration.
Under Texas law officials can seize property used to commit certain crimes. The state attorney general’s office filed a search and seizure warrant and a 91-page affidavit in state District Court in Schleicher County seeking to take over the ranch.
The sect will have the opportunity to oppose seizure of the ranch in a state court hearing. It bought the property in 2003.
“The warrant and affidavits filed today mark only the beginning of the legal proceedings,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
State officials have been investigating the ranch for years.
In 2008, Texas Rangers raided the ranch and state Child Protective Services temporarily took more than 400 children into custody. The raid, during which authorities carted away boxes of evidence, followed a phone call to a domestic violence hotline that was later thought to be a false report.
The sect practices polygamy in arranged marriages and has an estimated 10,000 followers in North America. It shares religious roots with the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream Mormon church denounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood and does not affiliate with the FLDS or any other polygamist sect.
Flora Jessop, a former member of the sect who is now a critic, said Texas’ effort to seize the ranch is “an incredible move” that will prevent members from abusing children there.
“I think that the ultimate payback for that property would be to facilitate a center that would free children from abuse,” Jessop said. “Set up some kind of program for children. Help children who have been harmed by abuse of any kind.”
The state of Utah has taken over the assets of a communal land trust once run by Jeffs, and a federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that the trust should not be turned back to sect leaders.
Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Greg McCune, Maureen Bavdek, and Jackie Frank