Polygamist sect member details 'celestial marriages'

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:05 PM

Matthew Waller

MIDLAND, Texas -- Former polygamist sect member Rebecca Musser said she was the 19th wife of the "prophet" Rulon Jeffs in 1995. That prophet would eventually have 65 wives, she said.

Musser, once a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, saw her own records of that marriage during the bigamy trial of former FLDS President Wendell Loy Nielsen this week.

Nielsen, 71, faces three counts of third-degree bigamy, punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.

Musser was there to authenticate FLDS documents. She described their importance.

"Within the culture, it is required for them to have certain ordinances and blessings. They had to be recorded. If there was no record, then it would not be acknowledged in the heavens," Musser said. "Without that record you could not gain your eternal salvation."

Musser described the marriage ceremony, and Special Prosecutor Eric Nichols had her focus on the verbiage of the ceremony calling the marriages "legal and lawful." Musser demonstrated a marriage handshake for jurors with a legal assistant, holding the index finger extended down the other person's forearm.

She explained that marriage and complete submission to her husband were necessary for a woman's salvation.

"Does that require physical submission?" Nichols asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Mental submission?"


"Emotional submission?"

"Yes," Musser said.

Musser said she knew the women Nielsen is accused of having married in bigamy, one from helping with musical numbers for children, another by being a "mother" to her, even though Musser was younger, because Musser was married to the woman's father, then-prophet Rulon Jeffs.

Jurors have learned from documents that the three women whom Nielsen allegedly married were Ilene Jeffs, who would have been 43 at the time of the "marriage"; Margaret Lucille Jessop Johnson, who would have been 58; and Veda Barlow Johnson, who would have been 65. Linda Black, whom Nielsen married in 1965, was his legal wife.

The state brought in family law expert Jack Sampson of the University of Texas School of Law to testify that the marriages would have been legal marriages, common law at least, if not for the previous marriage.

Defense attorney David Botsford tried giving different scenarios to throw his conclusion in doubt. He pointed to secrecy not being allowed in a common law marriage, and brought up the secretive nature of FLDS plural marriages.

Ezra Draper, another former FLDS member, also gave testimony about what it means to be in a celestial marriage. He and his wife, to whom he is still married, received a marriage license and were then married with a celestial marriage later.

"The civil marriage was a steppingstone to a higher vow," Draper said.

Nielsen stepped down as president of the FLDS when FLDS supreme leader Warren Jeffs assumed the position in early 2011.

Warren Jeffs, who was convicted last year, is serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl.

Law enforcement authorities raided the YFZ Ranch in April 2008 after allegations of sexual abuse. Twelve men, including Warren Jeffs, were indicted and 10 have been convicted of crimes such as child sexual assault and bigamy.

This is the first bigamy case to go to trial. Others have pleaded no contest and accepted sentences of seven to eight years.

Nielsen also had pleaded no contest, but he later withdrew his plea because he didn't like the terms of his probation and because he wasn't able to transfer his probation to Colorado where he has family.

(Contact Matthew Waller of the Standard Times in San Angelo, Texas, at www.texaswest.com.)

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