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Robert Lee, Texas • During the second day of trial for a former polygamous sect bishop, Texas Rangers testified about their discovery of what would amount to more than a billion pages of documents housed behind a thick vault door on a polygamous sect's remote ranch.
Fredrick Merril Jessop, 75, is accused of marrying leader Warren Jeffs to an underage girl on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2006. The documents Rangers discovered when they penetrated that vault door during a massive raid in 2008 would form the basis of charges against Jessop and 11 other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Testimony wrapped up early Tuesday afternoon, and prosecutors said the bulk of their case against Jessop could be complete Wednesday, according to a report by the San Angelo Standard-Times.
"The state will prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that on July 27, 2006, Fredrick Merril Jessop married a freckled, 12-year-old girl to a 50-year-old man," said prosecutor Angela Goodwin, according to the paper.
Jeffs was convicted in August of sexually assaulting two young girls he took as plural wives. Prosecutors say the 55-year-old had a total of two dozen underage brides.
Jessop is the only person charged with facilitating those unions. He faces a felony count of performing an illegal wedding ceremony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison. His trial started Monday, when a jury of eight women and four men was seated along with two alternates. Tuesday was dedicated primarily to law enforcement testimony establishing how the evidence was found and how it was handled, according to the Standard-Times.
Jessop's San Angelo, Texas-based defense attorney Rae Leifeste raised hearsay objections on how the Rangers learned that those at the YFZ Ranch are members of the FLDS, and whether evidence is admissible based on their testimonies, the newspaper reported.
He also questioned whether the type of marriage ceremony Jessop performed a so-called spiritual or celestial union can be considered a marriage ceremony under Texas law.
"We have to follow Texas law, not some church law," Leifeste said, according to the Standard-Times.
Jessop was a senior church leader in charge of running the daily operations at the YFZ Ranch until Jeffs excommunicated him from the faith in January.
Concerns over the difficulty of choosing an unbiased jury in sparsely populated Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, prompted the judge to move Jessop's trial about 70 miles north to Coke County.
Among the possible witnesses in the trial is one of Jessop's wives, Carolyn, who fled the FLDS community on the Arizona-Utah line with her children in 2003 and wrote a best-selling book, "Escape." A Texas judge ordered Jessop to pay his former wife $148,000 for seven years of back child support last year.
Jessop was the leader at the ranch when authorities executed the 2008 raid, responding to a call to a domestic violence hotline from a person claiming to be an abused underage wife. Before the call was found to be a hoax, more than 400 children were temporarily removed from the ranch and placed in state protective custody.
Another FLDS man pleads no contest
Leroy Johnson Steed, 45, pleaded no contest to sexual assault and bigamy charges Tuesday morning, the San Angelo Standard-Times reported. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. He was accused of marrying a 14-year-old girl in 2004 as one of at least eight wives, according to Texas court documents.
Steed was also one of two people arrested during the raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, accused of trying to take a trash bag full of papers, including an electronic data storage device, off the ranch. Prosecutors dropped a tampering-with-evidence charge in exchange for Steed's plea.
His is the tenth case to be completed of the 12 FLDS men charged with offenses related to underage marriages following a massive 2008 raid on the group's YFZ Ranch.