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Texas jury convicts former polygamist sect leader of bigamy

By Matthew Waller

MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - A Texas jury found a former leader of a breakaway Mormon polygamist sect guilty of being married to at least three women at the same time, including marrying two of them on the same day.

After about an hour and a half of deliberations, the jury in a Midland, Texas, trial convicted Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, of three counts of the rarely-prosecuted crime of bigamy.

Nielsen is a former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church. He was accused of marrying three women when they were 43, 58 and 65 years old.

Defense attorney David Botsford argued that Texas bigamy laws do not apply to the marriages practiced by the sect, which teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives. The Mormon church has condemned the sect, which has an estimated 10,000 followers in North America.

He said that the women were placed with Nielsen in order to secure their salvation and that the unions were never intended to be legal.

"Without a head of the household, she cannot go to heaven," Botsford said.

But special prosecutor Eric Nichols said the unions were common-law marriages.

"What you're dealing with here are multiple marriages that look like marriage, talk like marriage, walk like marriages," Nichols said.

Prosecutors believe Nielsen married 34 women in addition to his legal wife, although he was only charged with three counts of bigamy.

Nielsen was one of 12 men indicted for crimes including child sexual assault, bigamy and performing an illegal marriage after an April 2008 law enforcement raid on the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas to check on accusations of sexual assault.

Ten of the men have been convicted, including church leader Warren Jeffs, who was found guilty last year of sexually assaulting two underage girls he wed as spiritual brides.

Jeffs is in prison in protective custody in Palestine, Texas, for life plus 20 years. But he still exerts influence in the sect through his brothers, sends out prophetic messages to public officials and has taken out advertisements in newspapers across the country.

Nielsen was the president of the sect's corporation in Utah until he stepped down so Jeffs, who was still the supreme leader, could assume the presidency early in 2011.

This is the first bigamy case of the 12 men to go to trial. Two have pleaded no contest to bigamy charges and received seven and eight years in prison.

The trial, which began last week, now moves to sentencing.

Bigamy is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

(Reporting by Matthew Waller; Editing by Greg McCune and Corrie MacLaggan)