MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — A former lieutenant to polygamist sect prophet Warren Jeffs illegally took multiple wives on a remote West Texas compound that was raided by authorities, prosecutors alleged Thursday.
Wendell Loy Nielsen's trial on three counts of bigamy began Thursday in Midland, Texas, the Standard-Times of San Angelo reported. Nielsen, 71, was a counselor to Jeffs and former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted after rejecting a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid jail time.
FLDS teachings hold that taking multiple wives brings glorification in heaven. The mainstream Mormon church rejected bigamy more than a century ago.
Prosecutors showed photos of the FLDS church's Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas — site of a 2008 raid that led to indictments against Nielsen and 11 others. They also named three women Nielsen allegedly married in 2005 in addition to his legal wife.
Nielsen's attorney, David Botsford, argued that "celestial marriages" weren't illegal.
"The state cannot prove that celestial marriage or spiritual marriage violates the bigamy statute," Botsford said, according to the newspaper.
Handwritten family records seized during the raid suggest Nielsen may have taken as many as 21 wives.
Prosecutors said Nielsen legally married Linda Black in 1965. Nick Hanna, an officer with the Texas Rangers, testified that authorities did not find divorce or death records.
Witnesses also described the compound, which included a gleaming white temple, a school, and a guard tower, as well as Nielsen's alleged home inside the complex. Nielsen acknowledged that one of the women he's accused of having taken as a wife lived in that home.
Jeffs, the spiritual head of the church's roughly 10,000 followers, was convicted last year of sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison. Others indicted after the raid have received lengthy prison sentences.
Authorities in the raid found women dressed in frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century as well as underage girls who were clearly pregnant. The call that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax. More than 400 children taken from the compound were later returned by court order.
Against his attorney's advice, Nielsen rejected a guilty plea late last year of 10 years of probation because he thought the requirements were too restrictive. He would have been required to stay away from playgrounds and people younger than 17. He also would have been barred from holding a position in the FLDS.