Sacred seizure

FLDSbookYesterday I raised some of the journalistic questions surrounding coverage of the raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Texas. And I was happy to see I wasn’t alone in being intrigued by those questions.

In the comments to the post, reader Joel asked:

Did you notice that when the temple was searched, there was little or no mention of the taboo-ness of gentiles entering it? I wondered about that, and I still haven’t seen anything that mentions the FLDS reaction to having their sanctum sanctorum violated.

Enter Miguel Bustillo’s story in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Authorities searching a remote polygamist compound for a 16-year-old girl who had claimed she was sexually abused discovered a bed inside a towering limestone temple and were told by a “confidential informant” that men used it to have sex with underage girls, according to a court document unsealed Wednesday.

The Associated Press ran a video report on the raid, that puts the size of the temple and the ranch in context.

Some folks wondered how it was possible that the group’s sacred temple and the contents therein could be subject — rather easily it seemed — to a search and seizure by law enforcement officials. Here’s the Times, again:

The allegation that sex between adult men and underage girls was occurring inside the monolithic white temple came Saturday from a confidential informant who formerly belonged to the religious sect and who had been cultivated over several years by Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, according to the affidavit.

In addition, Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long disclosed in the affidavit that investigators had interviewed numerous underage girls who were pregnant or married to men with multiple wives. While inside the compound, Long saw a document “indicating marriages between one man and more than 20 wives, all of whom resided in the same residence” as of last August.

When an investigator asked one girl her age, the affidavit states, the girl turned to her husband, Lee Roy Jessop, who said, “You are 18.” The girl then told the investigator that she was the fourth wife of Jessop, 33, and that “he was still married to the other three wives” in the eyes of the sect.

The initial search warrant does not appear to have been executed solely due to one complaint from a 16-year-old girl who said she had been raped and beaten. The Texas officials had been working with a confidential informant who had, on more than 20 previous occasions, given information that had been corroborated. The affidavits for search warrants have been unsealed so I hope the media report the further details.

Reading through the search warrants, some of the girls with children of their own claim not to know their age. So clearly law enforcement officials are looking for records which establish precisely how much statutory rape is going on among the FLDS. That presents concerns not only related to religious freedom but also attorney-client privilege. FLDS attorneys are arguing they have the right to review the seized material:

“The church has rights. Entry to the church is a sacred area,” said Gerald H. Goldstein, an attorney for church elder Lyle Jeffs. He argued that seized texts and genealogies considered holy by the FLDS should not become part of any court cases if they don’t directly relate to crimes.

Tom Green County District Judge Barbara Walther agreed that with help from an independent special master, the group should have the right to review evidence — for example, to ensure that attorney-client privilege is not violated if the evidence contains correspondence between attorneys and members of the sect.

I think Bustillo did a great job with the story, answering so many of the legal questions that have been raised. One minor point is that the temple had multiple beds, not the singular one that he mentions in the lede. Bustillo wrote an engaging story without falling into some of the overheated langauge we’ve seen in other reports.

For those still wondering about whether the term “compound” is appropriate, read the search warrant and let us know what you think.

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  • Danny Haszard

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses have settled lawsuits alleging church policies protected pedophile men who sexually abused children for many years.
    Frederick McLean is one of the most-wanted fugitives in the United States

  • Dave

    For those still wondering about whether the term “compound” is appropriate, read the search warrant and let us know what you think.

    Mollie, you posed the question. Are you now implicitly criticizing those who answered it?

  • Mollie

    Nope. I’m just curious if the response changes after reading the search warrant. I never had a problem with it. But I’m open to hearing from others, particularly in light of additional information.

    What do you think? Still the wrong word?

    Also, what would be better?

  • tmatt

    There is no question, at this point, that it was an armed, guarded facility, with people locked out and people locked in.

    So, is the question whether “compound” is too loaded a word to describe such a facility?

  • Andy

    Another word that’s popped up here and there and has been bothering me: “bigamy.”

    There may be men in this… um, walled-ranch-thingy… who have two wives. But the ones mentioned above range from tetragamists (presumably, four wives) to icosagamists (20 wives – or, if you prefer latin, quadragamists and vigengamists).

    I realize that bigamy may be the name of the actual crime in Texas, but that doesn’t mean journalists have to follow suit.

    So, a bigger question: Can a man be said fairly and accurately to be a polygamist when he has twenty “spiritual”, i.e., not legal, wives? I once knew a man whose (legal) wife was disabled. He lived in a house with her, and another woman, with whom he was romantically linked but not legally married. Had I written about him, could I fairly have called him a “bigamist”?

    This is a serious question that comes up now and then. Are African Muslim immigrants living in New York with three women and their respective children polygamists? Or are they just shacked up? Does polygamy only come into play when Mormons of one sort or another are involved? And if I label a man with one legal wife and three “spiritual wives” a polygamist, should I label the man living with one woman, with whom he has a child, married?

  • Dave

    Mollie asks:

    What do you think? Still the wrong word?

    Yes, at the moment when the reporter hadn’t seen the search warrant and had only heard “compound” from the prosecutor’s press conference.

    Also, what would be better?

    In the very unlikely event that I belonged to a church with more than one major building on its land, I would prefer the word “campus.” Since I would prefer that, I would give others the same courtesy, at least until convinced they didn’t deserve it.

    Andy: As I understand it, bigamy is the crime of having two wives and claiming to be monogamously married to each. Eg, having a wife in Cleveland and a wife in Orlando, neither aware of the other and believing herself the sole wife. The wives of polygamists, as that term is usually applied, are aware of one another — indeed, may tend one another’s kids by the patriarch.

  • Andy

    Right. But in this case, the affadavit used “bigamy” and a couple of news sources (can’t find them right now) followed suit. Just a simple gripe.

    My whine about polygamy is more conceptual than practical, I guess. I’m trying to figure out whether in a society in which sex and reproduction have been severed from marriage, and what used to be called “common law” marriage from legal marriage, whether the word “polygamy” has any technical content, absent multiple (fraudulent) certificates of marriage. It’s a subject that reporters get all worked up about, but without a coherent, Christian concept of marriage (or at least a shared understanding of natural law) they’re unable to articulate why, exactly.

    Remember: Only in the last fifteen years or so has it been necessary for a reporter who ran up against the subject of same-sex marriage to explain that it is controversial. It’s only in the last ten years that it has become necessary to explain the basis for opposing it. And now, you’re lucky to get even that.

  • Dave

    Andy wrote:

    I’m trying to figure out [...] whether the word “polygamy” has any technical content, absent multiple (fraudulent) certificates of marriage.

    The content is family.

    There are two strains of polygamy in American culture, or I suppose I should say counter-culture, today. One is the classic use-to-be-Mormon version with a patriarchal head of household and multiple wives. The other goes by the name “polyamory,” is egalitarian and consensual, and is often found among Pagans. They have in common a concept of family that extends beyond the standard nuclear family, though as you may imagine in different directions.

  • Julia

    As I understand it, the state doesn’t really care who is sleeping with who unless one party is a minor. The concerns the bigamy statutes addressed were primarily 1) that the guy couldn’t or wouldn’t support the abandoned or inevitably to be abandoned first family and the state would be supporting them. [It hasn't been all that long ago that a woman left on her own with children and no resources had a really, really hard time of it.] And 2)rights under contracts, government programs and probate law would cause disputes which the state courts would have to straighten out.

    The laws were not written for an era with people who would contract multiple marriages with the women knowing about it.

    In any case, “spiritual” marriages are not what bigamy statutes addressed. Bigamy involved two civil marriages. Many times the statutes were particularly aimed at quicky Reno divorces that could be obtained without the wife back East knowing about it and Nevada didn’t require a property settlement, leaving the abandoned wife penniless. Many states did not recognize Nevada divorces -resulting in grounds to nab the husband as a bigamist so the state wouldn’t have to support the first wife and children.

    Bigamy laws may go the way of “alienation of affections” laws, which were also aimed at family stability for the benefit of the state, and which are never prosecuted any more.

  • Karen

    I had to re-read the phrase “Tom Green County District Judge…” because I immediately associated “Tom Green” with an actual and contemporary person who made himself well-known as a polygamist several years ago. I looked up To Green County, Texas to make sure it existed. That is an amazing coincidence, isn’t it? Why did the newspaper not clarify the reference in the article?