Texas sect men ask judge to toss seized documents
SAN ANGELO, Texas — Authorities leveraged a fake abuse claim to justify a massive raid of a polygamist sect’s ranch when their true purpose was to persecute an unpopular religious group, attorneys for 10 indicted members of the sect said Wednesday.
“You were misled,” attorney Gerald Goldstein told District Judge Barbara Walther at a hearing on the defendants’ motion to suppress evidence seized in the April 2008 raid. Walther issued the search warrant allowing the raid.
Goldstein said an investigator failed to check the veracity of the domestic abuse hot line calls prompting the raid and failed to disclose previous false calls and other information that might have caused Walther to refuse to issue the warrant.
“Omissions rise to the level of misleading if they would affect the court’s decision-making,” Goldstein said.
State prosecutors said law enforcement had probable cause to search the Yearning For Zion Ranch last year and that the evidence, including documents that list plural and underage marriages and pregnancies among sect girls, should not be suppressed.
Twelve members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been indicted on charges including sexual assault of a child and bigamy since the April 2008 raid, in which more than 400 sect children were temporarily swept into custody. The suppression motion covers all but jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs, who awaits trial in Arizona on charges of being accomplice to rape, and a sect member who faces only misdemeanor charges.
Any decision to suppress some of the evidence could hurt the state’s case because sect women and girls have been reluctant to testify, even in secret grand jury proceedings.
Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols, who is handling the prosecution, contested Goldstein’s claims. He said law enforcement never doubted there was a young, pregnant girl in danger at the ranch when they requested the search warrant. He also said the defense’s claims were irrelevant.
“None of those claimed omissions would have affected any of the probable cause,” he said.
Nichols had argued earlier that the defendants didn’t have legal standing to challenge the seizure because the ranch is owned by a trust controlled by the church.
The FLDS holds property and goods communally, meaning members share everything. They do, however, have specific family residences at the 1,700-acre ranch in the west Texas town of Eldorado, and Goldstein said that should be enough to establish the men had a right to expect privacy there.
The raid began after a domestic abuse hot line received numerous calls from someone claiming to be a 16-year-old mother and wife who was being physically abused at the ranch. The first search warrant allowed authorities to look for the caller, a “Sarah Barlow,” and named her husband as “Dale Barlow” — a name provided not by the caller but by a domestic abuse hot line worker who did an Internet search for “Barlow” and found stories about a previous case involving a sect member in Arizona.
The first warrant led to the issuance of a broader warrant giving officers the authority to search for any evidence of underage marriages and sex.
The Texas Rangers have since named a 34-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., woman as a “person of interest” in the hot line calls and acknowledged there was no “Sarah Barlow” at the ranch.
The Colorado Springs woman, Rozita Swinton, has a history of multiple personality disorder and faked reports of abuse to law enforcement. She faces a misdemeanor charge of making a false report in a separate incident in Colorado and is scheduled to go on trial May 19. She has not been charged in Texas.
Goldstein said Texas Ranger Brooks Long failed to do basic checks on the caller, even though law enforcement had received previous false claims of abuse at the ranch, and a claim by the caller that she had been hospitalized was known to be false before the search began.
Prosecutors have said that law enforcement had the required probable cause to search the ranch, regardless of later evidence about the calls’ origins.
Authorities had “substantial basis for concluding that a search would uncover evidence of wrongdoing,” Nichols wrote in his response to Goldstein’s motion. He also argued that the warrant wasn’t overly broad because it restricted the search to a gated ranch.
The hearing recessed Wednesday and was to resume Thursday.
The criminal cases, though prompted by the initial child abuse investigation, are separate from the child custody cases that swept 439 ranch children into foster care at one time. All but one of the child welfare cases ended with the children being allowed to stay with their parents; an alleged child bride of Jeffs’ is staying with a relative.
The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.