This week saw a landmark sentencing for child abuse in the state of Texas. Merril Leroy Jessop, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), was convicted on a count of sexual assault of a child and sentenced to 75 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He was also convicted of bigamy. Merril L. Jessop, a member of the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) Ranch community, is just one of the FLDS members picked up in the last few years for engaging in underage celestial marriages.
Merril L. Jessop’s wife was 15 when she married him in a ceremony at the YFZ Ranch. Prosecutors used DNA evidence to prove that Jessop had fathered a child with his then underage spouse. Jessop told a doctor that he was his underage wife’s uncle and couched her to tell authorities that she was 18-years-old. He also attempted to destroy computer-based photographic evidence of his relationship with his child bride.
This marks the most recent conviction in Texas of a YFZ Ranch man for sexual assault and represents the stiffest penalty yet for the offense. The crime of sexual assault of a child was changed from a second-degree to a first-degree felony by the Texas state legislature in 2006. The range of punishment for a first-degree felony in Texas is five to 99 years imprisonment.
Many feel the change in the severity of punishment was done specifically to combat the child abuse prevalent at FLDS compounds. YFZ Ranch, which is located just outside of Eldorado, Texas, is one of the largest settlements of FLDS members in the world. According to some reports it has become the new headquarters of the whole FLDS movement and its Bishop, Merril Jessop (father of Merril L. Jessop), may be the spiritual leader of the FLDS Church.
The question of who exactly is in charge of the FLDS Church has been in the air since the conviction and imprisonment of Warren Jeffs. In 2007 Warren Jeffs was found guilty of two counts of rape as an accomplice and sentenced to prison for 10 years to life. Warren Jeffs is the son of Rulon Jeffs, the man who abolished the seven-man council that previously controlled the FLDS community and replaced it with a prophet-based dictatorship. Rulon Jeffs was the FLDS president and prophet for over 15 years and had (by some estimates) 75 wives and 65 children at the time of his death in 2002.