KINGMAN - A Colorado City man who had pleaded no contest to child abuse was sentenced to three years supervised probation and will be required to register as a sex offender during that time period.
Vergel Bryce Jessop, 47, was one of the eight men from the polygamist-supporting Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints indicted by the Mohave County Attorney's Office on sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor felony charges.
"I'm certain that I can probably talk for hours on what I think is the very interesting issue as to whether this case and the other cases are attacks on polygamy or attacks on a lifestyle," Mohave County Judge Steven F. Conn said before sentencing.
"And I'm absolutely convinced that they are not, and I tried to make that clear every time we tried this case. These cases are about people having sex with underage girls and justifying their doing so by reliance upon their religion. I believe that is a significant distinction," Conn said.
Jessop, who is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, earlier accepted a no-contest plea to child abuse, a Class 6 undesignated offense. According to the plea agreement, Jessop received three years of supervised probation with no further jail time.
Whether Jessop had to register as a sex offender and for how long was based upon the discretion of Conn.
"The real issue in this case is whether I force the defendant to register as a sex offender," Conn said before sentencing.
Conn said that he felt one of the main purposes of requiring an individual to register as a sex offender is to have a pool of names law enforcement can draw from in the event of a sex-related crime in the area. He added individuals are forced to register as a sex offender to alert the community, but he said he felt that this wasn't the case for Jessop and Colorado City.
"I think everyone in that area knows that everyone else is engaging in this behavior," Conn said. "I cannot imagine that Mr. Jessop is going to return to this community and be viewed as anything other than a martyr or a victim who has been persecuted and prosecuted for his religion. I say this having read letters from, by now, probably hundreds of people in the community, and I have a pretty good feeling that's how the prosecution of these cases is being perceived."
Defense Attorney Bruce Griffen told Conn prior to sentencing that a main reason Jessop accepted the plea agreement was due to physical and mental health issues with his wife and the victim, whom is described as his second wife. He did not want to risk having to spend time away from them in jail if he was found guilty in a trial.
The no-contest plea meant Jessop didn't admit to committing the crime, but will not argue the state can prove he committed the crime. It is treated by the court the same as if he had admitted guilt.
If Jessop successfully completes his probation, he will no longer have to register as a sex offender and the charge will be reduced to a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith argued for Jessop to be forced to register as a sex offender because Jessop didn't served any jail time beyond one day and would serve as a form of punishment for committing the offense. He said Jessop's conduct "fits the bill for mandatory registration."
"But I'm not going to dispute overall that Mr. Jessop isn't somebody who's likely to go out and rape and abduct children or go out and hurt children, because I don't think there's any evidence to support that at all," Smith said before sentencing. "The issue, though, is that as part of the FLDS church and as part of this belief system, which is why we're here in the first place, he'll follow what the prophet tells him to do. So if Warren Jeffs or whoever the prophet is at the time tells Mr. Jessop 'You are going to accept another underage wife,' I believe that the evidence that we have seen ... that it is very likely that the defendant will in fact do what the prophet tells him to do."
Jessop was the first case involving the eight men indicted from the Colorado City community to agree to a plea bargain.
"I think it's really difficult to look at one of the cases without being aware of the other cases," Conn said.
Dale Evans Barlow also pleaded no contest on April 11, the day of his trial, to the conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor charge before Conn. In the agreement, Barlow faces stricter punishment, including up to a year in jail and registering as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
According to Smith, Griffen submitted the plea agreement to his office on Tuesday. Smith added that he had never submitted a plea agreement and expected the case to go to trial.
As part of the agreement with the County Attorney's Office, the sexual conduct with a minor charge will be dismissed. Another aspect of the agreement is Barlow will receive probation on the charge.
A pre-sentence hearing followed by judgment and sentencing has been set for 1:30 p.m. June 15.
Rodney Hans Holm is the only one of the eight men indicted in July 2005 yet to stand trial or enter into a plea agreement. He will have a jury trial starting at 9:30 a.m. on May 15.