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Texas moves to seize polygamist Warren Jeffs' ranch compound

November 28, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Church members purchased the property in Eldorado for about $1.3 million in 2003 with laundered money and used the property to sexually assault children, according to an affidavit.
Church members purchased the property in Eldorado for about $1.3 million… (Donna Mcwilliam / Associated…)

HOUSTON -- The Texas attorney general moved Wednesday to seize the sprawling ranch compound owned by convicted polygamist leader Warren Jeffs' group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The filing "begins the final chapter of the state’s nearly five-year effort to pursue widespread criminal misconduct" at the ranch, named Yearning for Zion, Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott’s office said in a statement.

Investigators filed a warrant to seize the 1,600-acre ranch in West Texas under state law that allows seizure of property used to commit or facilitate criminal conduct.

According to a 91-page page affidavit in support of the search and seizure warrant served on the ranch in Eldorado, about 300 miles west of Dallas, church members purchased the property for about $1.3 million in 2003 with laundered money and used the property to sexually assault children and hide Jeffs in 2006 while he was a fugitive on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List.

According to the attorney general’s office, the ranch was purchased by church members at the order of Jeffs, who was based in Utah at the time but, “sought a rural location where the FLDS could operate a polygamist compound where the systemic sexual assault of children would be tolerated without interference from law enforcement authorities.”

The affidavit cites Jeffs’ “priesthood records” from the time the ranch was purchased, which instruct followers “to keep this particular property so private and sacred and secret that not even the faithful who are driven will know of this place, because this is where the sacred records are. The wicked, in their mind, feel like if they could destroy the records or get them turn[ed] over to the authorities, they could destroy us and they know there is laws, wicked laws, un-righteous laws passed by the government that could put us in jail, many of our people.”

The records also note that “these places must be kept secret and sacred, and those who dwell there and here must be full of the Holy Spirit to keep the hedge of protection around us. The devil knows where we are, but through our faith the wicked and the righteous can be blinded and not find this place.”

Jeffs toured the property, which he urged followers to refer to anonymously as “R17,” and laid out some of his plans, according to records cited in the affidavit: “This will be a major gathering place of the saints that are driven. You can see it is well isolated. In looking at this location, we can raise crops all year round. There is no building code requirements. We can build as we wish without inspectors coming in.”

“Everyone here is under oath and covenant to keep this place, these places sacred and secret, and everyone here is under oath and covenant to live the fullness of the Holy United Order, the Celestial Law,” Jeffs said, according to the records.

At various points, according to the records, Jeffs referred to the ranch as a “place of refuge.” It now resembles a small town, with its own temple, temple annex, residential buildings, school, clinic, shop, warehouse, water treatment/sewer plant, improved streets and several commercial buildings, according to the affidavit.

Jeffs described in his records the furniture color he wanted on each floor of the temple, as well as a special temple table he wanted constructed with a bed on top that investigators believe he used to commit sexual assaults.

After a 2008 raid on the ranch, nine FLDS members -- including Jeffs -- have been convicted of sexually assaulting girls there under the guise of polygamist “celestial marriages.” Some victims were as young as 12 and 14, and gave birth shortly after their “marriages” to much older men.

Jeffs, 56, was convicted last year and sentenced to life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two girls -- both underage brides. Earlier this year, he was caught preaching over the phone from the East Texas prison where he was being held in isolation and had his phone privileges revoked.

Jeffs and several other church members listed on ranch property records were served with the warrant and affidavit, and copies were delivered to the ranch, although it was not clear whether the property was occupied. Law enforcement officials have not received a response at the ranch in recent years, and asked the court to post copies of the most recent paperwork at the front gate. The gate is equipped with several security cameras and an intercom, with a guard tower just beyond, according to the affidavit.

Those served with the warrant have 10 days to respond, and no response had been filed by Wednesday, according to a court clerk. Once a response is filed, the matter is expected to come before District Judge Barbara Walker in San Angelo, the clerk said.

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