November 25th, 2008
12:07 PM ET

Polygamist leaders indicted – and jailed

Chuck Johnston
CNN National Desk

The patriarch of the world's biggest polygamist sect's compound in Eldorado, Texas turned himself in after being indicted on felony charges. Fredrick Merril Jessop, 72, of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), is charged with one count of conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony involving a minor, which is a third-degree felony.

Jessop has been running the compound, called the Yearning for Zion Ranch, home to hundreds of church members. He was husband of Carolyn Jessop, who wrote in her best-selling book, "Escape" about their marriage and life in the FLDS, and her frightening escape from Merril Jessop and the compound with her children.

Carolyn Jessop and others have said girls as young 11 have been forced into polygamists marriages with older men, boys have been ejected from the sect on trumped up infractions, and children have been beaten.

Two other FLDS elders were also charged, and turned themselves in. Wendell Loy Nieslen, 68, is charged with three counts of third-degree felony bigamy. Leroy Johnson Steed, 42, is charged with one count of sexual assault of a child, one count of second-degree felony bigamy, one count of third-degree felony bigamy, and one count of tampering with physical evidence, a third-degree felony.

Also named in the indictments handed down by a Texas grand jury was the sect's "prophet" Warren Jeffs. He is charged with a first-degree felony count of aggravated sexual assault, of top of the July indictment that accused him of sexually assaulting a child. Jeffs is already in prison on a conviction on helping arrange the marriage of a minor.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said 12 people associated with the compound have now been indicted, and his investigation continues.

Filed under: Chuck Johnston • Crime & Punishment • Polygamy
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. ringo

    The "official" LDS comment on the FLDS is misleading at best. These are not just a random group of people who decided to call themselves FLDS. They are the descendants of Mormons who refused to accept the ban on polygamy.

    This attempt at distancing is particularly ironic given the Mormons claims about their own descent. Last time I checked, they were still referring to themselves as members of the "House of Israel"

    November 29, 2008 at 3:29 pm |
  2. Kathryn

    The FLDS and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are two separate and distinct organizations.
    I quote from the official LDS Church new releases:
    "Perhaps what is needed most of all in this matter is a sense of proportion and perspective. Consider the following facts. According to the KSL news station, the group that now calls itself the FLDS began as simply “The Work” or “The Priesthood Work” in 1930. In 1942 it changed to “The United Effort Plan.” It wasn’t until 1991 that this group adopted the name “The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” a name almost identical to the official designation of what is commonly called the “Mormon” faith, and a full 161 years after the mainstream Church was founded. Any reporting of the worldwide Church and this smaller group must take this factor of time into account. To any average observer, it doesn’t seem fair or reasonable for a comparatively small religious group to adopt the full name of another well-established church after more than a century and a half. "
    Comparing the FLDS and the LDS is akin to comparing Catholics and Anglicans.

    November 27, 2008 at 12:16 pm |
  3. Mindi

    No more excuses. Everyone was born with instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. This is why some HAVE left the cults. Others can't because they coward to the fear and the threats while others are empowered by them to make a change and run.

    HIstorically and even in current events, there are libraries filled with cases documented where there are old sleeping with young, children baring children, women and children abused, children murdering parents, ALL THE WHILE with others knowing about it, and not being prosecuted.

    Whatever the truth, people plead insanity when they aren't, and not-guilty when they are, and we the taxpayers challenge them in court.

    Some of these women were raised being taught cult beliefs but i tell you – in MOST cases, it is natural for a mother to care about her children and to protect them and these women have NO EXCUSE to allow their own children to be abused by older men, and for their children alike to be experiencing the same abuse.

    I say, mass indictments and no excuses anymore. Good grief, when will it end.

    Every state should investigate these 'compounds'...

    November 26, 2008 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Joan

    Most are already on welfare assistance because legally (our laws) they are single mothers. They call this bleeding the beast (with us being the beast). How else do you think they could support all those kids. It's you and me supporting them.

    November 26, 2008 at 1:12 pm |
  5. rjsoutherngirl

    The women don't need to be convicted, they need to be put in a place away from these men so that they can be taught that they can survive in the real world and we aren't all out to get them. Also, if you have followed, these people are not allowed to listen to music, read books, or watch tv that isn't approved by Jeffs. They are, for lack of better terms, people who are taught to read and write, but are not educated at all. I feel the judge shouldn't have been so quick to return the children. If you look at how many were pregnant under the age of 18, and 1 is too many, and how many had children that you could prove they had prior to them being 18, it is proof enough to back up what all of the women who have escaped are saying, it happens. I feel the judge should have made them show birth certificates for each child to prove who the parents were and ordered a DNA test on everyone prior to returning them. This would have been to keep the children more safe and keep up with who they had actually taken into custody. These people change their names so much, it will be almost impossible to keep up with it if they move them to the AZ compound.

    November 26, 2008 at 12:24 pm |
  6. JDP

    this is so shocking to hear this kind of news, their using the word of god in their sinister way.... i hope they all go to jail for abusing children and helpless woman.....

    November 25, 2008 at 11:01 pm |
  7. cory merrifield

    and they say that gay men and women shouldnt have children? look how these people act. Raping little girls, beating women, throwing out young boys and teenage boys because they dont bow down before the older men? are these the moral values they claim they have that we gay parents do not?

    November 25, 2008 at 9:01 pm |
  8. WJ Grant

    There is one more grand jury session to be held in December. Hopefully more indictments will be handed down, and the women, who are as guilty as there priesthood masters, will be included.

    November 25, 2008 at 8:15 pm |
  9. Annie Kate

    I wondered if Merrill Jessup would get caught in the net during the investigation – I'm glad he did. These men have a lot to answer for. I wonder if the women will be investigated as well or are they considered to all be victims as well?

    November 25, 2008 at 8:08 pm |
  10. Jai

    Are you kidding me? Evidently some people live in a perfect world. Women all over the world are daily subjected to patriarchal rules, which include, rapes, beating, subjugation. This country was founded on patriarchal rules. Let's stop kidding ourselves and educate everyone, speak out, use your voice. This is not anything new, but none the less continues to shock.

    November 25, 2008 at 7:09 pm |
  11. Joanne in Ontario Canada

    What I don't understand is why are these compounds allowed to be built and progress to the extent they have without any questions being asked by the governing9 bodies of these states.

    November 25, 2008 at 7:08 pm |
  12. M Rinonos

    Are these persons living in America, how can they do that to these children. They profess it is for god but actually it is for their own pleasures. In the Philippines, incest, molestation of a chid is punishable by death, that even the Cardinal of the Roman Catholic church is denied the request to give a lighter sentence. As K Tassin said the mothers should be prosecuted as well for neglecting these children. How are they so stupid to allow these mean things to happen to children! They thought they are beyond the law of the United States, they should buy an island in Antartica if they want to do that and they freeze in hell over there.

    November 25, 2008 at 6:09 pm |
  13. MrsMC

    I'll tell you why no one charges the mothers. It's because, for the most part, they've victims too. Have you ever been abused?? It's not exactly their fault that they've been raised, from birth, to believe that the entire outside world is out to get them, that there can be no help to be had, and that their eternal salvation (or, in the event of rebellion, damnation) depends on them sitting there quietly while these things happen to them and to their children. I would wish that everyone, man or woman or child, would have the courage to run from an abusive situation, but the fact is that most people don't.

    November 25, 2008 at 5:37 pm |
  14. Melissa

    But you have to understand the mind control these men had over the women of the sect. Women understood that they would be shunned by their families, removed from their children, and kicked out onto the streets lacking any kind of real world experience if they spoke out against their husbands. But I do think that the law might find the women to be responsible & am curious as to why they have not been prosecuted.

    November 25, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  15. H. Ellis

    I just can not imagine what it must be like for these girls to live in fear of the day when they are married off to men old enough to be their grandparents...and to procreate with these men. These poor children have no say in it. Why are the parents getting away so easy? That is child endangement, putting your children in a position where you know they will be assaulted by these old men. No parent should be exempt from the law, it is our duty as parents to protect our children.

    November 25, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  16. m fellion

    No mothers are being prosecuted because this is a political witch hunt to further the prosecutors carreer. If the mothers are blaming the leaders let them step forward and indentify what they consider is the crime. So far no mother is stepping forward saying they were the victim of a crime. If the leaders were deluded no one in the sect seems to agreeing with the prosecutors. So what is left is a political witch hunt that was first used against the Mormon leaders in the 1880's before they recanted their religous beliefs in lieu of going to jail.

    November 25, 2008 at 5:04 pm |
  17. Kevin in Oregon

    It's amazing that the FLDS, under the umbrella of the Mormon church, is the very same group that raised $20 million to pass Prop 8 in California. What a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites.

    November 25, 2008 at 5:00 pm |
  18. Laura

    I would like to see widespread welfare fraud charges and repayment for anyone involved in fraudulent receipt of government funds. If the compound was joint owned by any parent, that would be a violation of AFDC requirements, for example.

    November 25, 2008 at 4:53 pm |
  19. Sal

    Women will fight men for a job, but they won't fight men for their children.

    November 25, 2008 at 4:43 pm |
  20. M Greenwood

    K partly because the women are "protecting" the children and what is left of their families. Some truly believe that their way of life is correct and others fear reprisal and loss of their children not to mention the "beatings the could receive. The FLDS is a very unforgiving group of people. If they feal threatened they clap together and push out anyone who questions the authority of the leaders. They truly believe the leaders speak for God. But they don't they speak out of selfishness and it is not for the betterment of the "Church" as they say. First and for most they are breaking the law of the land, and this is forbidden by God. Bottom line the US authorities have no idea who the true mothers are for most and so they are going after the church leaders who imposed these falsehoods and lies upon those blessed soles.

    November 25, 2008 at 4:29 pm |
  21. Brenda L.

    You mean the mothers who were raped as children as well? Did you see some of the women talk on TV? They need deprogramming, not prosecution. They are obviously so brainwashed. It is ingrained in them from childhood that men are everything, and they are second class.

    Plus, women obviously have no power in this group. Listen to, or read the accounts of the women who tried to leave with their kids if you wonder why the mothers didn't do more.

    November 25, 2008 at 3:57 pm |
  22. K Tassin

    Why are we not hearing the mother's being prosecuted as well? It's just as much the mother's responsiblity to protect these children.

    November 25, 2008 at 3:18 pm |
  23. Erin

    This is a very sick, sad world we live in.

    November 25, 2008 at 3:05 pm |
  24. Jen

    Yay! This is good news for all involved. I was so worried about those children.

    November 25, 2008 at 2:37 pm |
  25. Pat Tibbs

    This is good news, indeed.

    I am concerned, however, about the women and children who remain at the compound. They appear to be dependent on these pernicious pederasts economically and would need substantial support services if/when this compound falls. I sincerely hope the State of Texas is planning for that eventuality.

    November 25, 2008 at 1:29 pm |
  26. Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,Tx

    GOOD! These people are using extremist religion or rather their "cult" as an excuse to molest children and women. Simply put, brain wash tactics.
    Thank Goodness they are finally being stopped.
    What a ridiculous and deplorable situation this is.
    What would Jesus do? Hm.
    Thanks for the info.

    November 25, 2008 at 12:32 pm |
  27. Cindy

    I am glad that the Texas authorities have kept on the FLDS and not just let this slide. They needed to be arresting these men long ago! Hopefully all of them will get considerable jail time.


    November 25, 2008 at 12:12 pm |

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