CRIME

Trial begins for polygamist leader accused of sexually assaulting underage girls

Warren Jeffs, left, and his defense attorneys in a 2007 rape trial. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, Pool)
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SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) - His followers call him a prophet who is God's spokesman on Earth. Prosecutors say he's a bigamist who sexually assaulted two underage girls he duped into "spiritual marriages."

Whether he's a holy man or a criminal, it's hard to find many people who don't have an opinion on Warren Jeffs in this remote, cotton-growing corner of West Texas oil and gas country.

That will be the key challenge when jury selection begins Monday in the case of the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon church that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven - and should be protected under U.S. religious freedoms.

"I would imagine that they would want to transfer it to the moon where you might have a chance that no one would have heard of it," said Patrick Metze, a criminal law professor at Texas Tech University.

Jeffs is charged with sexual assault of one child and aggravated sexual assault of another. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted and will be tried separately on bigamy charges in October.

The accusations stem from an April 2008 police raid on a church compound known as Yearning For Zion outside the town of Eldorado, about 45 miles south of San Angelo. Authorities who believed girls were being forced into polygamous marriages removed more than 400 children living at the compound, and TV images of women wearing frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos were shown across the country.

The original call to a Texas domestic abuse hotline that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax - authorities suspect that a woman in her 30s living in Colorado made it. Most of the children seized from the ranch have since been returned to their families, but the evidence collected during the raid proved enough to charge Jeffs and 11 other church men with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy.

So far, all seven who have gone to trial have been convicted, receiving sentences of six to 75 years in prison.

District Judge Barbara Walther ordered the Jeffs case moved to San Angelo, which meant transferring it from Schleicher County, with 3,500 residents, to nearby Tom Green County, home to just more than 110,000.

Walther said 700 jury summons letters were sent, but only about 280 potential jurors will show up. San Angelo has already hosted two of the previous FLDS cases - but none as high-profile as this.

"I do hear a lot of folks taking about the fact that we've had a number of trials and that this may be the biggest and most important nationally," said Phil Neighbors, president of San Angelo's chamber of commerce. But he also said, he'd "heard more talk about the media attention than I hear about the trial itself."

Jeffs' church has its traditional headquarters along the Utah-Arizona border, and Jeffs was convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah in 2007, though that ruling was overturned by the state supreme court.

He was extradited to Texas in December. Seized at the Yearning For Zion ranch were hundreds of pages of personal journals compiled since Jeffs took over as head of the church from his father in 2002.

Tall and lanky with thick glasses, a chained and shackled Jeffs has made numerous appearances in Walther's court but said little - preferring to mostly stare at the floor. Church faithful rise when he enters.

The attorney now handling Jeffs' case is Deric Walpole, based in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas - but he only came aboard last week.

Walpole asked that the trial be delayed to better prepare, but Walther denied that.

Jeffs is backed by a church land trust with more than $110 million in property and has retained seven attorneys since December. But he dismissed one the same day he hired him. Another, Jeff Kearney, tried to withdraw on July 7, after Jeffs asked that he be dismissed.

Prosecutors accused Jeffs of running through so many lawyers as a stalling tactic. Walther rejected Kearney's motion to leave the case.

His attorneys have said little about what kind of defense Jeffs will mount.

The Texas attorney general's office is handling the case and has also refused to comment on its strategy. Past FLDS cases have relied on documents from Yearning For Zion, though, as well as DNA evidence.

Kearney said in January that if stacked floor to ceiling, the documents in the case would fill most of Walther's courtroom. Another of Jeffs' attorneys, Houston-based Emily Munoz Detoto, said that numbers of items already in evidence run from one through 1 million.

The case "is a lot of things," said Metze, the Texas Tech law professor. "But simple it is not."

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