SAN ANGELO, Texas — The leader of a polygamist sect, who made headlines in 2008 when police raided his Texas compound and took away over 450 children, was Thursday found guilty of sexually assaulting two young girls.
Warren Jeffs, the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who submitted a letter to his trial which he said had been dictated by God, could now face up to 119 years behind bars.
His reclusive sect was thrust into the spotlight when Texas police raided a sprawling compound near the small town of Eldorado and seized 468 young boys and girls amid allegations of systemic sexual and physical abuse.
But they were soon ordered by a court to return them to their parents when a court ruled child welfare officials had overstepped their authority.
Jeffs, 55, had been put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list in May 2006 for charges of accomplice to rape in Utah.
He was caught outside of Las Vegas in August 2006 but his conviction on two charges stemming out of the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old first cousin was overturned last year by a Utah court.
The Texas case stems from evidence gathered in the 2008 Eldorado raid.
“It’s a unique case with regard to the crimes involved at the YFZ Ranch,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. “The veil has been pulled back on the sexual assault of so many kids.”
Jeffs was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl in 2006, and fathering a child with a 15-year-old girl he allegedly sexually assaulted in 2005.
“If someone comes to Texas and assaults a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old, they’re going to be put behind bars,” Abbott, whose office prosecuted the case, told reporters after the verdict was read.
Jurors had heard an audio recording that was allegedly made of Jeffs ritualistically raping the 12-year-old girl. Prosecutors also presented DNA evidence that showed Jeffs fathered the child.
Jurors deliberated for less than four hours, and could now hand down sentence in the next two days.
Jeffs showed no reaction when the verdict was read, and had said nothing but, “I am at peace,” after about 25 minutes of silence in his closing argument.
He also gave no opening statement, but preached during the trial about how the government was violating the right to religious freedom, even submitting an affidavit from God asking for presiding 51st District Judge Barbara Walther to be removed.
A tall, slender man perpetually stooped in court, Jeffs fired a team of Texas attorneys early on in the trial and chose to represent himself.
Prosecutors dismissed Jeffs’s assertions that sex with children was a religious freedom. “You’ve heard this is an attack on the FLDS religion,” Eric Nichols said in closing arguments.
“This case is about one individual, Warren Steed Jeffs, and his actions and what he himself has done.”