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.
Last year's trial of Warren Jeffs, a polygamist reputed to have dozens of wives, opened a window onto rituals of the sect, which included multiple marriages for men, often with teenage girls.
A jury convicted Jeffs of being an accessory to rape after a 14-year-old girl was pushed into marriage against her will with her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is serving two terms of five years to life while awaiting trial on other charges connected to the marriage of underage girls to older relatives.
"Once you go into the compound, you don't ever leave it," Carolyn Jessop, a wife of the alleged leader of the Eldorado clan, told the Associated Press. Jessop, who took her eight children and left the group before it decamped for Texas, said the women were intentionally isolated from the outside world.
"They have no concept of mainstream society, and their mothers were born into it and have no concept of mainstream culture," said Jessop, 40. "Their grandmothers were born into it."
At the compound, a former exotic-animal ranch acquired by the sect in 2003 for $700,000, members built residences, tilled gardens and baked bread while trucking groceries in from outside, only rarely venturing into Eldorado.
State troopers serving the search warrant were looking for a 50-year-old man, identified by the teenage caller as her husband, as well as any records pointing to their marriage. She told authorities that she had a baby with her.
Authorities who staged the raid did not know what to expect, mobilizing child-welfare caseworkers and police investigators alike. A helicopter was used for airborne surveillance, and a SWAT team was used to raid the sect's temple, according to filings by Isaac Jeffs and Merrill Jessop.
The 50-year-old man's parole officer told local reporters that the man was in Arizona and had never heard of the girl. The only person arrested at the ranch was a resident who police said had interfered with their operation.