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Texas jury convicts Warren Jeffs follower of bigamy

March 28, 2012|Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Wendell Nielsen listens to arguments involving a land dispute in Supreme Court in Salt Lake City.
Wendell Nielsen listens to arguments involving a land dispute in Supreme… (Laura Seitz / Associated…)

HOUSTON -- A West Texas jury has found a former associate of polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs guilty of bigamy.

Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, stood trial for marrying three women in addition to his legal wife, two of whom he married on the same day in 2006. At trial this month, his attorney had argued that the sect's “celestial marriages” did not violate state bigamy laws.

The jury in San Midland, about 330 miles west of Dallas, deliberated for about an hour and a half before finding Nielsen guilty Wednesday of three counts of bigamy, court clerks told The Times. 

Nielsen is the former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot sect. He was among the dozen people indicted after a 2008 raid on the sect’s Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, about 150 miles southeast of Midland.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not recognize the fundamentalist sect and renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas state prison after he was convicted last year of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15. He still maintains control of the sect from behind bars, releasing prophetic messages to public officials and taking out advertisements in newspapers.

The San Angelo Standard-Times reported that Nielsen showed no immediate reaction to the verdict Wednesday.

Nielsen now faces up to a decade in prison after rejecting a plea deal last year that would have allowed him to avoid jail.

The San Angelo paper cites "extraneous offense documents" submitted by prosecutors that allege Nielsen married 34 women in addition to his first wife, including mothers and daughters and sisters, and performed marriage ceremonies for Jeffs and underage girls. The documents alleged Nielsen witnessed 258 bigamous marriages, and was involved in the marriage of 37 girls ages 12 to 16, according to the San Angelo paper.

Clerks told The Times the sentencing hearing was underway Wednesday afternoon in Midland before District Judge Robert H. Moore.

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