Texas moves to seize polygamist Warren Jeffs' ranch compound3:43 am - 11/30/2012
AUSTIN, Texas - State Attorney General Greg Abbott's office moved Wednesday to seize the West Texas ranch that has been occupied by a breakaway Mormon sect and its polygamist leader, Warren Jeffs, who is imprisoned for the sexual assaults of two underage girls he considered his wives.
With the filing of a warrant in Schleicher County, Abbott is seeking to confiscate the Yearning for Zion Ranch, the 1,600-acre property near Eldorado where state officials took - and later returned - 400 children of sect members out of fear for their safety. The filing marks the beginning of the attorney general's final chapter in effort to pursue "widespread criminal misconduct" at a place where multiple children were sexually assaulted by members of the sect, Abbott's office said in a statement.
The land should be seized because members affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had acquired the property "with the intent to commit felony offenses," according to the 91-page affidavit that was used to secure the warrant.
Jeffs, 56, who claimed he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs, was sentenced to life in prison in August for sexual assault of children at the ranch in a case stemming from two underage followers he took as brides.
Jeffs' sect of roughly 10,000 is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism.
Seeking to bolster their case for seizure, prosecutors also allege that FLDS leaders financed the property through money laundering. The sect bought the land about 200 miles west of San Antonio for about $1.1 million in 2003, according to the affidavit. According to local tax records, the total value of the land is appraised at more than $33 million.
In the four years since Texas authorities swarmed the ranch, state prosecutors have spent more than $4.5 million racking up convictions against Jeffs and 10 followers on child sex and bigamy charges, according to state records.
Abbott wasn't available Wednesday to comment on the case.
But the affidavit alleges that proceeds from illegal activity were used to purchase the ranch. Under state law, the property can be considered contraband, because it was used in the commission of crimes, including sexual assault, bigamy, illegal transfers of money and aiding Jeffs when he was on the run from federal authorities.
Sect lawyer Rod Parker of Utah didn't return phone calls. But he told the Salt Lake Tribune that Abbott's action to "take the property and sell it to the highest bidder" might result in the eviction of "substantial numbers" of FLDS members living at the ranch.
"They're punishing the victims. These aren't the people who committed the crimes," Parker told the newspaper, adding that he hadn't read the entire affidavit and couldn't immediately respond to charges of illegal activity.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said notice of the action was delivered to sect members still living at the property without incident on Tuesday.
There have been no recent law enforcement calls to the ranch, which is about four miles north of Eldorado, he said.
And if the state ends up with control of the property, it is likely that either the attorney general's office or the Department of Public Safety will auction it off, said Jim Suydam, spokesman for Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose office oversees state lands.
By Tim Eaton & Chuck Lindell Austin American-Statesman
Published: 11/29/2012 2:08am, last modified: 11/29/2012 4:58am