A Texas jury in oil-rich Midland returned a maximum 10 year sentence and a $10,000 fine on each of three counts of bigamy for FLDS polygamist leader Wendell Lloyd Nielsen, according to Wichita Falls native and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today (Friday).
Nielsen may today be regretting his decision to turn down a plea bargain offer of 10 years probation.
Nielsen, who was temporarily named as the president of the business area of the polygamist sect’s dealings after Warren Jeffs was sent to prison, will now follow in the footsteps of his former boss along the trail which leads to a Texas prison cell.
Abbott, who orchestrated the prosecution of several Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints polygamists, said today in the wake of the verdict, “A total of 11 Yearning for Zion Ranch-related defendants have been indicted on sexual assault of a child, bigamy or other charges, and all 11 defendants have been convicted on felony charges and sentenced to prison. All prosecutions are being handled by the Office of the Attorney General, which is working in cooperation with 51st Judicial District Attorney Steve Lupton.”
Although he received the maximum sentence for bigamy of 10 years in prison, the 71-year old former FLDS president’s fate pales in comparison to the life sentence plus 20 years which former kingpin Warren Jeffs received from a San Angelo jury in 2011.
Jeffs was convicted of the more serious charges of Sexual Assault of two children who he married as his “celestial wives”. His defense was similar to Nielsen’s in that he also claimed the so-called “celestial marriages” were spiritual in nature and not a violation of any Texas laws. Jeffs was convicted of sexually assaulting a 12-year old girl and a 15-year old girl.
Special Prosecutor Eric Nichols was lead prosecutor for all eleven of the successful prosecutions which were orchestrated by Attorney General Greg Abbott. Nichols was a Deputy Attorney General in Greg Abbott’s office when he prosecuted the first of the polygamist cases. Nichols was awarded one of the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association highest awards for his prosecution of Warren Jeffs and the other polygamists. During the Annual Conference in South Padre Island, Texas, he was presented with the Lone Star Prosecutor’s Award.
When he returned to private practice, he agreed to serve as special prosecutor for the remaining cases under the direction of the Texas Attorney General.
Nielsen was sentenced for marrying three women aged 65, 63 and 43 after his first and only legal marriage.
Prosecutor Nichols introduced evidence in the punishment phase of the trial showing Nielsen may have had as many as 30 wives and observed as many as 50 underage marriages. Nielsen was the lone FLDS leader not convicted of marrying any underage girls.
Warren Jeffs was estimated to have married between 70 and 80 wives, many of them underage.
Evidently, Jeffs is still running the 10,000 members polygamist sect which broke away from the Mormon church, from inside his jail cell, as reports circulate that he has excommunicated Nielsen and other leaders he considered threats to his power.
At one point Jeffs’ telephone privileges from prison were suspended based on him giving sermons to church members over a communications system from his prison cell.
The evidence in this case was gathered in the glare of the national news media’s spotlight in 2008 when Texas Department of Safety troopers from the Wichita Falls office participated in a raid on the YFZ Ranch. The Ranch was hidden from public view in the solitary far reaches of West Texas. Troopers collected literally thousands of documents which proved all of the cases prosecuted so far.
Defense Attorney David Bottsford argued the “celestial marriages” were spiritual and therefore not illegal under Texas laws.
Nielsen had earlier pled guilty and agreed to a 10-year probation plea bargain. However, when the presiding judge imposed some restrictions he didn’t like, he backed out of the deal. Now he will be living with more severe restrictions in a Texas penitentiary.
The FLDS polygamists still maintain strongholds stretching from Arizona and Utah northward through Colorado, South Dakota and other states. Their empire also reaches into Canada.
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