July 23, 2008 / 2:24 AM / 11 years ago

Texas grand jury indicts 6 in polygamist ranch case

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A Texas grand jury on Tuesday charged the jailed polygamist leader of a breakaway Mormon sect with sexually assaulting a child and indicted five followers after state officials raided a polygamist ranch near Eldorado in April.

Warren Jeffs looks toward the jury in his trial in St. George, Utah, September 25, 2007. REUTERS/Douglas C. Pizac/Pool

Included in the indictments issued by a grand jury in Schleicher County, Texas, was Warren Jeffs, the controversial spiritual leader and self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Jeffs has already been sentenced in a Utah court to 10 years to life in prison as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old first cousin. He is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on similar charges for arranged marriages there.

Texas authorities descended on the sect’s Yearning for Zion ranch in West Texas in April in response to allegations that a middle-aged man there had married and fathered a child with an underage girl.

More than 400 child members of the polygamist sect were taken into custody by state officials in April, but were later returned to their families after a Texas judge in June lifted the custody order.

The indictments, announced by the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott against Jeffs and five others, totaled nine counts of sexual assault, bigamy and related charges.

Jeffs was charged with sexually assaulting a child - a first-degree felony that could carry a life prison sentence - and four other unnamed defendants were indicted for allegedly sexually assaulting young girls under the age of 17.

The last unnamed defendant was charged with three counts of failure to report child abuse.

Abbott’s office did not release any more information on the case and said the indictments were part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

The case has gripped Americans with lurid allegations of adolescent brides, teenage pregnancies and a secretive sect on a remote ranch.

Plural marriage is illegal in the United States but FLDS men typically marry one legal wife while the others become their “spiritual wives.”

That may be a way around the law but the sect stands accused of marrying underage brides, which is not legal.

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon faith is officially known, renounced polygamy more than a century ago and tries to distance itself from breakaway factions that still practice it.

Reporting by Chris Baltimore, editing by Jackie Frank

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