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The Texas Attorney General's Office moved Wednesday to seize the remote ranch where polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs and other men sexually abused underage girls taken as plural wives.
Authorities say sect leaders purchased the Yearning for Zion Ranch to commit crimes, which constitutes money laundering under Texas law and also makes the property subject to seizure laws as contraband,according to a 91-page search-and-seizure warrant. Sect members bought the 1,600-acre property "in a failed attempt to establish a remote outpost where they could insulate themselves from criminal prosecution for sexually assaulting children," according to a news release from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
The property is appraised at $19.96 million, according to county tax rolls.
The warrant is akin to civil foreclosure rather than a criminal investigation, but it could force the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) members living there to move off the property, said sect attorney Rod Parker. Authorities taped the warrant to the YFZ Ranch gate Tuesday afternoon and made it public Wednesday.
"It seems like the objective is to take the property and sell it to the highest bidder," Parker said.
If authorities evict the sect members living there, "they're punishing the victims. These aren't the people who committed the crimes," he said, though he couldn't immediately respond to the money-laundering charges. The sect will have a chance to answer the charges and fight for ownership of the ranch at a yet-to-be scheduled hearing on the seizure.
The court filings do not mean FLDS members living on the ranch must immediately leave, said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. He called the warrant the next chapter in the state's prosecution against sect leaders, which began with a massive raid on the ranch in 2008 that resulted in criminal charges related to underage marriage.
"Obviously, this is an extension of what has happened to this point with the criminal convictions of men at the ranch," Strickland said. He declined to comment on whether new charges may be leveled against sect members. None had been filed as of Wednesday.
The legal action came as sect members appear to be abandoning the area. In recent months, FLDS-owned homes, businesses and a farm have gone into foreclosure or been neglected. This summer, a large concrete tower built by sect members was mysteriously torn down and destroyed.
"It appears there's a skeleton crew out there just keeping things going," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran.
Because it's private property, however, deputies don't patrol the ranch, so it's not entirely clear how many people are still there or why some might have left. Though the population often fluctuates depending on the location of the work that sect members are doing, this exodus appears different, he said.
"It's hard to say what's going on. There's nothing here that's forcing them out," he said, though the seizure order could change that.
"As of yesterday, there was nothing moving," said J.D. Doyle, an Eldorado pilot who periodically flies over the ranch and photographs it. "The last time I flew over four days ago, there was nothing there. Four cars in the whole compound."
About 800 people lived on the ranch at the time of the 2008 raid, he estimated, including more than 400 children who were taken into state protective custody and later returned to their parents. Parker, the FLDS attorney, declined to divulge exactly how many people still live there, but said it was a "substantial number."
Those who have left appear to be going to other large FLDS properties, such as those in South Dakota and Colorado, or to smaller so-called houses of hiding spread around the country, said Willie Jessop, a former spokesman for the sect who has become a sharp critic.
The FLDS bought the YFZ Ranch in 2003. Written records kept by Jeffs, called priesthood records, indicate he established the ranch as a sacred place because he believed FLDS members would be driven from their home base in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
The 2008 raid by Texas and federal law enforcement began after a bogus tip that a girl on the ranch was being held against her will and wanted to escape. While that tip was false, once law officers visited the ranch, they found evidence of underage marriage and sexual abuse and filed criminal charges against a dozen men, including Jeffs.
Jeffs, 56, was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, in Texas last year and is now serving a life prison sentence. Wednesday's seizure paperwork was filed in the same West Texas court district where Jeffs was tried and convicted.
During Jeffs' trial and again in the court papers filed Wednesday, attorneys for Texas contend the ranch was established so Jeffs and other men could marry and have sex with underage girls. In the gleaming white temple Jeffs had built on the ranch's grounds, Texas Rangers found special folding beds where Jeffs had sex with at least one of the girls he took as a wife.
The new affidavit says "Jeffs orchestrated the purchase of the Suspected Place for the purpose of facilitating and perpetrating criminal offenses, including Bigamy, Sexual Assault, and Aggravated Sexual Assault. The Suspected Place and its improvements provided Jeffs and other FLDS members a secure location where they could obscure the fact that these serious felony crimes were being perpetrated."The seizure investigation began in 2010, documents indicate.
Besides Jeffs, 10 other FLDS men have been convicted on bigamy, underage marriage or sexual abuse charges using evidence seized in the 2008 raid. One man was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report child abuse.
In the seizure affidavit, Texas authorities say FLDS members engaged in money laundering when they paid $1.1 million for the first tracts of land because they knew illegal activities would occur there. Also, there were hundreds of transactions between FLDS bank accounts for amounts between $5,000 and $9,999. Banks must report to the U.S. Treasury Department transactions exceeding $10,000, and Texas authorities contend the sect was trying to circumvent that reporting law.
The affidavit also lists dates Jeffs hid at the ranch while he was on the FBI list of most-wanted fugitives.
Private investigator Sam Brower said Wednesday's action shows the sect's overlapping business interests and religious activities amount to a "criminal organization."
It's "what I've been saying for years," he said. "I'm so happy; it's kind of vindicating."
Texas' case for seizing the YFZ Ranch
Law enforcement contends the FLDS purchased the ranch knowing crimes would be committed there, which constitutes money laundering under Texas law.
An investigation documented hundreds of FLDS financial transactions alledgedly designed to avoid scrutiny from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Twelve men, including Warren Jeffs, have been convicted of crimes prosecutors showed happened there, including sex abuse, underage marriage and bigamy.
Jeffs hid at the ranch in 2006 while on the FBI's list of most-wanted fugitives.
An affidavit says bigamy is likely continuing on the ranch.
Source: Affidavit filed by Texas Attorney General