Former polygamous leader says probation conditions too strict
Court • Accused bigamist could still go to trial if he withdraws his plea.
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A former polygamous sect leader sentenced to probation on bigamy charges may yet take back his plea and go to trial.

Wendell Nielsen, 70, says a Texas judge departed from the bargain he had struck with prosecutors and imposed stricter probation conditions, including staying away from his entire family and not coming within 1,000 feet of a school.

In new court documents filed in Schleicher County, Nielsen is asking for those conditions to be changed, or he might withdraw his plea and go to trial.

Prosecutor Eric Nichols said Texas law gives a judge "broad discretion" to implement probation conditions he or she sees fit. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 28.

Unlike other men from the Warren Jeffs-led sect, Nielsen was not accused in any underage marriages — he was charged with three felony counts of bigamy for marrying middle-aged women ranging from 43 to 66 years old. He faced a maximum penalty of two to 10 years in prison on each count.

His attorneys initially said they would challenge the state's bigamy law as unconstitutional, but ended up working out a deal with prosecutors. Nielsen would serve 10 years probation, with five special conditions, including avoiding any leadership position in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and reporting any other crimes he hears about, according to a defense motion.

Judge Barbara Walther accepted his plea in a hearing on Oct. 25, but no conditions of his probation were discussed, defense attorney David Botsford of Austin wrote. It wasn't until he reported to the probation department the next day that Nielsen found out he would also have to follow an enhanced set of probation conditions, which also including staying away from almost all children under the age of 17 and not using the Internet or drinking alcohol without permission.

Botsford wrote the stricter conditions "render his plea involuntary." If they don't change, he says Nielsen should be able to withdraw the plea and possibly go to trial.

Nielsen was one of 12 FLDS men charged in Texas following a massive raid on the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2008. Nielsen, who served as president while leader Warren Jeffs was imprisoned in Utah, was one of the highest-ranking members of the sect until Jeffs reportedly excommunicated him earlier this year.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst