By Paul J. Weber
SAN ANTONIO — In the four years since Texas authorities swarmed the polygamist ranch of sect leader Warren Jeffs, state prosecutors have spent more than $4.5 million racking up swift convictions against him and 10 loyal followers on child sex and bigamy charges, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
Combined with other state agency costs surrounding the April 3, 2008 raid, documents show the price tag is approaching $20 million for what began as a chaotic roundup of nearly 400 children and grew into one of the largest criminal cases in recent Texas history.
The saga is now all but over. Last week, state prosecutors convicted the last of 11 men arrested at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. All received prison time, including a life sentence for Jeffs.
“This was never about validation,” said Jerry Strickland, spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office. “… It was always about, first and foremost, protecting children. There were a lot of people who wanted to make this about something it was not.”
Jeffs, 56, is the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and is still considered God’s spokesman by his followers despite being in prison. He and several of his convicted followers still face separate charges of bigamy.
Strickland said Tuesday his office has not yet decided whether to also prosecute the bigamy allegations.
When asked whether spending more taxpayer dollars would factor in that decision, Strickland said he did not know.
Spending records obtained by AP were broken down by year, not by defendant, though the biggest expenses by far came during the run-up to Jeffs’ highly publicized two-week trial in August. The attorney general’s office spent more than $1.8 million in 2010 and another $884,000 last year.
By comparison, Strickland said the attorney general’s office spent $19.5 million total on all criminal prosecutions in 2010 and 2011.
Driving up the FLDS case costs was more than 21,000 case hours spent by investigators sifting through a staggering amount of evidence hauled off the secretive ranch in remote Eldorado. Authorities seized nearly 1,000 boxes of physical evidence and another 6 terabytes of digital files.
Strickland said Tuesday the manpower the case required makes it the largest ever in the decade since Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott took office.
The most disturbing evidence wasn’t revealed until Jeffs finally went to trial. Prosecutors played lengthy audio tapes of Jeffs allegedly sexually assaulting one of his 12-year-old brides, and jurors saw wedding photos of the polygamist leader posing with other underage wives.
Among prosecutors’ expenses was more than $24,000 to Utah-based Beall Psychological Services for expert testimony. The state also paid Rebecca Musser, a former FLDS member who was once a wife Jeffs’ father, Rulon, more than $17,000. Strickland said the payment was for her testimony and assistance with the investigation.
All but three of the 11 arrested FLDS members went to trial; the others accepted plea deals. All of the jury trials appeared to end as nothing short of uncompetitive cakewalks for prosecutors — in only one case did juror deliberations last more than two hours. Jeffs fired several high-powered attorneys during the course of his trial, and at one point represented himself in the courtroom.
Attorneys for the FLDS defendants have argued that the search warrant authorizing the raid on the 1,700-acre ranch was invalid. An appeals court last year, however, ruled that authorities had sufficient grounds for probable cause.
Prosecutor costs provided to AP were through February.
In December 2008, the state released a 21-page report about the raid that broke down costs per agency, which added up to $12.4 million.
The Department of Family and Protective Services spent more than $10 million temporarily rounding up nearly 400 children from the ranch in what became one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history. All were eventually returned to their families.
A Texas appeals court last week dismissed Jeffs’ appeal, writing in a two-page order that Jeffs had failed to meet filing deadlines and had altogether not responded to notices from the court.