400 Children Removed From Sect's Texas Ranch

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By Adam Kilgore and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 7:04 PM

ELDORADO, Tex., April 8 -- Law enforcement authorities Tuesday continued searching the 1,700-acre ranch run by a reclusive polygamist sect but announced there were no new developments in the search for the 16-year-old girl who sparked the raids by telling state Child Protective Services a 50-year-old man has married her and fathered her child, a spokeswoman for the Texas Rangers said Tuesday afternoon.

Authorities are still looking for the alleged father as well.

The Department of Public Safety announced that a second arrest had been made in connection with the raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a polygamist compound located in the scrub land outside this town nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. The ranch was founded by jailed polygamist Warren Jeffs, a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which broke away from the Mormon Church more than a century ago.

Leroy Johnson Steed was arrested Monday night and charged with tampering with physical evidence, a third-degree felony.

Levi Barlow Jeffs was arrested Sunday and charged with interfering with the duties of a public servant, a class D misdemeanor. A Department of Public Safety spokesman did not know whether Jeffs is related to Warren Jeffs.

Both men are being held in Schleicher County Jail, spokesman Tom Vinger said.

Two FBI agents entered the compound this morning, the Eldorado Success, a weekly newspaper, reported on its Web site.

Texas authorities have taken more than 400 children into custody from the ranch, authorities said Monday. The children were joined by 133 women, in homemade ankle-length dresses, who departed voluntarily.

A central goal of the court-ordered sweep was finding and identifying the 16-year-old girl who telephoned authorities late last month. Acting on the complaint, District Judge Barbara Walther ordered all children removed.

State troopers sealed the ranch from outsiders Monday 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," Vinger said Monday.

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.

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.

The 50-year-old man's parole officer told local reporters that the man was in Arizona and had never heard of the girl.

Slevin reported from Chicago.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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