SALT LAKE CITY >> A woman who was married to her cousin at age 14 in a ceremony overseen by polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs has won a $16 million lawsuit against the group.
Elissa Wall’s lawyer said today that the decision lets attorneys investigate the secretive group’s bank accounts and property held in states all over the U.S.
“This is hopefully to continue the attack on illegal and criminal conduct so they’ll comport their doctrines to what’s permissible under the U.S. Constitution,” said Wall’s attorney Alan Mortensen.
In his ruling, Judge Keith Kelly said that he found the behavior of Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints “was so extreme that it went beyond all possible bound of decency and is regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”
Wall plans to use the money to help people leaving the group, which is based along the Utah-Arizona border and has a compound in South Dakota.
“I can now close these chapters in my life and focus on building a better future for myself and my children,” Wall said in a statement. The state of Utah is also entitled to half the punitive damages in the case, up to $6 million, under state law, Mortensen said.
Last year, Wall agreed to a $2.75-million settlement with the group’s communal property trust, but her case against Jeffs and the group continued until Tuesday. Neither Jeffs nor his group got a lawyer or defended themselves in the case.
Her testimony about the 2001 marriage helped convict Jeffs in Utah of being an accomplice to rape, though the verdict was overturned on a technicality. He’s now serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.
His group does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.
The Associated Press doesn’t generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Wall has spoken publicly and written a book about her experiences.
The federal government has also gone after the group on multiple fronts, winning child labor cases in Utah and recapturing high-ranking leader Lyle Jeffs, who fled home confinement in a food-stamp fraud case.
An Arizona jury found last year that the border towns that form the town’s home base denied nonbelievers police protection, building permits and water hookups on the basis of religion.
The communities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, are now under court supervision for the next decade as punishment.