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Crime News Peacock

What Were Some Of The More Than 700 Pieces Of Evidence Found In Warren Jeffs' Yearning For Zion Temple?

Investigators discovered more than 700 pieces of evidence during a 2008 raid on the polygamist property, including marriage records, a daily account of leader Warren Jeffs' activities and a disturbing audio tape prosecutors said captured the sexual assault of a 12-year-old child bride.

By Jill Sederstrom

For years, authorities had suspected that Warren Jeffs was forcing underage girls to marry much older men—but it wasn’t until a 2008 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas that investigators finally got the evidence that they needed to put The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) leader away for life.

Texas authorities discovered more than 700 pieces of evidence in a sacred temple on the property, including priesthood records outlining Jeffs’ daily activities, marriage records, a ceremonial bed, and a disturbing audio tape that prosecutors argued during his trial captured Jeffs having sex with his 12-year-old bride as his other wives looked on, according to Peacock’s: “Preaching Evil: A Wife on The Run with Warren Jeffs,” available to stream now.

The evidence was discovered after Texas authorities raided the ranch in April of 2008 in response to a call to a San Angelo family crisis center from a woman named “Sarah Jessop Barlow.” The caller told the crisis center that she was a pregnant 15-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by her much older husband, Dale Barlow.  

Investigators searched the property for days and although they never found anyone by the name of Sarah Jessop Barlow—it was later determined to have been a hoax by a Colorado Springs woman in her 30s—they did discover crucial evidence that ultimately helped put Jeffs, known by his followers as “the prophet,” away for life, according to the docuseries.

The evidence was discovered in a large white temple on the property, considered sacred by FLDS members.

The temple was the last building searched on the property and FLDS members had tried to deter law enforcement officers from gaining entry into the building by kneeling, about a dozen feet apart, along the temple perimeter as part of a peaceful protest.

“Warren told us that if we allowed gentiles to go to the temple, and there were certain sacred spots on the land, that if they went into those spots that we as a people would be rejected and that the Lord would destroy us,” former FLDS member Vicki Thompson said in the four-part docuseries. “That would be the end for us.”

Despite the objection, law enforcement officers said they were tasked with doing a thorough search of the property.

“We knew the temple was a hot button for the FLDS community and we did not want to, you know, ‘desecrate’ the temple. Obviously, Sarah Barlow or any person could still be hidden there so we’re going to have to make sure that we search that temple,” said Sheriff Nick Hanna, a retired Texas Ranger.

Once inside, investigators discovered an elaborate bed used in religious ceremonies and seized more than 700 pieces of evidence, including bishop records, family group records, photographs and digital evidence. They also discovered a log of Warren Jeffs' activities and edicts written by his scribe and wife Naomie Jeffs known as the priesthood records, which Hanna described as a “like a roadmap to criminal activity.”

“We were able to build a lot of our cases on the priesthood records,” he said.

Eric Nichols, a Texas state prosecutor, said in “Preaching Evil” that none of the child victims agreed to cooperate with authorities, but investigators were able to build their cases using a “treasure trove” of evidence found in the temple, along with DNA from offspring produced from the “celestial marriages.”

The most notable criminal case was that of the group’s leader Warren Jeffs, who was charged with sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child related to his marriages to two young girls who had been 12 and 14 at the time of the nuptials, according to Nichols.

One of the teens, 14-year-old Veda, had a child shortly after the marriage. Authorities were able to use that child’s DNA to prove the sexual assault.

To prove the other case, Nichols said prosecutors found a 14-minute audio tape of 12-year-old Merrianne Jessop being sexually assaulted shortly after the celestial marriage to Warren in one of the highest rooms of the temple on an all-white bed specially made for similar ceremonies.

As some of his other wives looked on, Nichols said Jeffs began by giving instruction on what he referred to as the “ordinance of the sealing of the love of God.”

“We bless you with the power of God…to now become heavenly sensitive,” Warren can be heard saying, before he begins to breathe heavily and ask Merrianne how she feels.

“I feel fine. Thank you,” a meek voice can be heard replying.

In “Preaching Evil” Naomie Jeffs—Merrianne’s older sister and one of Warren’s favorite wives—denied the prosecutor’s account of the audio, saying that Warren was sick with a kidney infection and was breathing heavily for that reason. She insisted there was “no sexual anything” about the tape and said it had been a blessing “to seal the love of God in her mind and heart.”

In court, however, jurors had a strong reaction to the tape, causing some to weep openly.

“To hear Warren Jeffs giving her instruction in the way that he did about the things that he wanted her to do and to hear her plaintive voice, her quiet, halting voice, we had jurors that were literally in tears,” Nichols said.

Warren Jeffs was convicted on both counts and sentenced to life in prison.

“Preaching Evil: A Wife on The Run with Warren Jeffs,” is available to stream now on Peacock.