By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — Texas wants ownership of Warren Jeffs’ massive ranch where prosecutors say the convicted polygamist sect leader and his followers sexually assaulted dozens of children, the state attorney general’s office said Wednesday.
A judge will determine whether to grant the state control of the nearly 1,700-acre property owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. According to local tax records, the total value of the land is appraised at more than $33 million.
Seeking to bolster their case for seizures, prosecutors also allege that FLDS leaders financed the property through money laundering.
The sect bought the land for about $1.1 million in 2003, according to an affidavit filed Wednesday.
Starting with a raid on the secluded Schleicher County ranch in April 2008, the state spent more than $4.5 million racking up swift convictions against Jeffs and 10 of his followers. Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the warrant begins the final chapter in the state’s five-year-old investigation into the sect.
“This is simply the next step,” Strickland said.
Texas Rangers raided the ranch following a call to a domestic abuse hotline that turned out to be false, and took 439 children into state custody. Jeffs last year was convicted of sexually assaulting two minors whom he described as his spiritual wives. At trial, prosecutors presented DNA evidence to show he fathered a child with one of those girls, aged 15.
Jeffs, 56, is serving a life prison term in Texas.
He has continued to try to lead his roughly 10,000 followers from behind bars. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Rod Parker, a Nevada attorney for the FLDS, did not immediately return a phone message Wednesday from The Associated Press.
He told the Salt Lake Tribune that it seemed the state’s purpose was to take the land and sell it to the highest bidder, which would result in sect members living at the ranch likely being evicted.
“They’re punishing the victims. These aren’t the people who committed the crimes,” Parker told the newspaper.
It’s not known how many people still live at the secluded ranch located about 200 miles west of San Antonio, but the seizure warrant does not require them to leave. The property is so far off the main roads that only helicopters or planes can provide a true glimpse of the ranch.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said the population at the ranch has “reduced quite a bit over the last several months” since Jeffs was convicted. Whereas the property was once under a constant state of construction — the FLDS even had its own cement plant — Dolan said he believes only a small contingent of members are still there keeping the ranch working.
“We don’t see the traffic as much,” Doran said. “All that has slowed to almost zero.”
Doran said his deputies accompanied state investigators to deliver the warrant at the ranch. No one answered, so Doran said they taped the warrant to the ranch’s front gate.
Strickland, the attorney general’s spokesman, said it was too early to speculate about what the state would do with the property if given ownership. The group will have a chance to contest any seizure.
According to the state’s affidavit, the ranch is controlled under the name the United Order of Texas, which is described in county filings as a “religious trust created to preserve and advance the religious doctrines and goals of the FLDS.”
Online records from the Schleicher County Appraisal District indicate a dozen pieces of property at the ranch’s address that are owned by the trust and total 1,691 acres. Combined, the most recent appraised value of the properties is $33.4 million.
Jeffs’ most devoted followers consider him God’s spokesman on earth and a prophet, but they were absent from court for the bulk of his criminal trial.
Paving the way to Jeffs’ conviction were his own “priesthood records” — diary-like volumes, covering tens of thousands of pages, in which Jeffs recounts his sexual encounters and records even his most mundane daily activities.
Prosecutors cite the records in the 91-page affidavit filed Wednesday.
“This will be a major gathering place of the saints that are driven,” Jeffs wrote. “You can see it is well isolated. In looking at this location, we can raise crops all year round. There is no building code requirements. We can build as we wish without inspectors coming in. There is a herd of animals that the storehouse needs, that we can nourish and increase.”
In the affidavit, prosecutors allege that sect members illegally structured financial transactions and that Jeffs personally toured the ranch before the land was purchased.
To support prosecutors’ claims that FLDS leaders financed the property through money laundering, one section in the affidavit lists 175 deposits, almost all of which are just less than $10,000, made at San Angelo banks over the course of two years and staggered by only a few days each. The total is about $1.5 million.
Prosecutors say the series of four-figure deposits — which financial investigators call “structuring” — are typically done to evade federal reporting requirements.
However, the Texas attorney general’s office, however, has not formally charged any FLDS members with any financial crimes.
Under Texas law, authorities can seize property that was used to commit or facilitate certain criminal conduct, such as a home being used as a stash house for drugs. Strickland said he didn’t immediately know where this attempted seizure would rank among the state’s biggest efforts to claim ownership of criminal property.