400 Children Removed From Sect's Texas Ranch

Authorities in Texas say they are looking for a teenager whose complaint led to the removal of women and children from a polygamist compound. The girl claims she had a baby at 15 and is married to a 50-year-old man. Video by AP
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

CHICAGO, April 7 -- Texas authorities investigating allegations of abuse and the forced marriage of young teenagers to much older men have taken more than 400 children into custody from a remote ranch owned by a polygamist religious sect, authorities said Monday.

The children were joined by 133 women, in homemade ankle-length dresses, who departed voluntarily. While investigators questioned them, state police detained the men who live at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which is affiliated with sect leader Warren Jeffs. He was convicted last year of being an accessory to the rape of a 14-year-old girl.

The court-ordered sweep of the 1,700-acre property near Eldorado, Tex., nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio, continued into the night Monday, four days into a raid described as the largest single child-welfare operation in state history.

"We didn't know there would be this many [children], and we don't know how many more there are," Marleigh Meisner, a Child Protective Services spokeswoman, told the Dallas Morning News.

A central goal Monday was finding and identifying the 16-year-old girl who had telephoned authorities late last month to say that she had been abused at the ranch, built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Acting on the complaint, District Judge Barbara Walther ordered all children removed. Eighteen had already been taken into state custody over the weekend, a signal that they had been abused or were deemed by authorities to face imminent danger.

State troopers sealed the ranch from outsiders while they conducted their search. Buses filled with children -- mostly girls -- rumbled away from the property, which contains large housing units, a medical facility and a sprawling white temple, which authorities searched last weekend.

"For the most part, residents at the ranch have been cooperative. However, because of some of the diplomatic efforts in regards to the residents, the process of serving the search warrants is taking longer than usual," said Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. "The annex is extremely large, and the temple is massive." He declined to elaborate.

Two members of the sect objected to the raid, saying in state court filings that the search was unconstitutionally broad and vague in its focus, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday night. The filings came from Isaac Jeffs, the brother of Warren Jeffs, and Merrill Jessop, who oversees the ranch and its residents. Walther has scheduled a hearing on their complaint for Wednesday.

Police said there has been nothing like a repeat of the 1993 federal siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Tex. That incident ended in flames with the deaths of 82 sect members and brought years of recriminations.

Residents of the complex in the West Texas scrub have always lived secretively, away from the eyes of the inhabitants of Eldorado and the occasionally curious media. The church group sought to remain apart, raising its own provisions, sewing clothes and home-schooling children. The ranch includes a medical facility, numerous large housing units and an 80-foot-tall white limestone temple.

Yet the Texas church and two communities near Zion National Park -- descendants of a group that split with the Mormon Church more than 100 years ago over the issue of polygamy -- have drawn increasing law enforcement scrutiny.

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