SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge will decide whether nearly 200 children from a polygamous group were volunteering or forced to work long hours picking pecans during a 2012 harvest on a southern Utah ranch.
Prosecutors say Paragon Contractors had deep connections to the Warren Jeffs-led polygamous group and was under pressure to make money for its leaders before it used 1,400 unpaid workers, including 175 children, as unpaid labor.
The company denies that. Paragon says the families from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volunteered to pick up fallen nuts in Hurricane, about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City.
Three adults who say their children looked forward to helping in the fields after finishing their schoolwork appeared in court at the end of a three-day hearing in the case Wednesday.
They say they wanted to gather nuts to help their church build up food supplies for the needy.
Paragon owner Brian Jessop testified that what the families did was outside the contract his company had to run machines that shook the nuts off the trees. His lawyers say a harvest manager arranged for families to come out and keep part of what they picked up.
Prosecutors say Paragon knew children were working and Jessop sent his own kids to the pecan fields, though the defense disputes that.
Five children and teenagers testified Tuesday that they were pulled out of homeschool classes to work long hours while they were growing up in the sect. They said they worked when they were as young as 6 and were exposed to cold rain, barred from resting in nearby vans and given little food some days.
Former FLDS member Dowayne Barlow said the pecan harvest became a way for the church to make money around 2010, when group leaders were trying to pay the high cost of sending mass mailings of Jeffs' apocalyptic writings that were considered revelations.
Lawyers for the company called much of his testimony hearsay and asked the judge to toss it.
No deadline was immediately set for a ruling, and Campbell said it will likely be about three months before she makes a decision. If she sides with prosecutors who say the company broke a 2007 order against using child labor, Paragon could be ordered to pay back wages and subject to years of monitoring by an independent overseer.
The U.S. Department of Labor has already ordered Paragon and several members of the polygamous group to pay a total of about $1.9 million after the department's investigation found sect leaders directed the harvest.
Authorities say those leaders are loyal to Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.
The hearing comes as federal prosecutors also sue members of the FLDS in Phoenix. They contend two towns on the Arizona-Utah line that are dominated by the FLDS church have discriminated against nonmembers and are serving as an enforcement arm of the sect.
The towns deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in their decisions.
Sect members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It is a legacy of the early teachings of the Mormon church, but the mainstream faith abandoned the practice more than century ago.