Update, Apr. 7, 2008: 400 children in custody in polygamist compound raid
ELDORADO, Texas — Texas officials have removed 183 women and children from a polygamist sect’s remote ranch and were going building-to-building Saturday in search of more children.
Of those taken from the 1,691-acre YFZ Ranch, 137 were children and about 40 are boys, Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said Saturday afternoon. The 46 women taken from the ranch are parents to some of the children, she said.
CPS officials said they received a complaint on Monday from a 16-year-old girl inside the compound alleging physical abuse.
“I can’t confirm with you that we have ever found that girl,” Meisner said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said late Friday that it would not issue any additional information about the raid at the request of the Tom Green County District Attorney’s Office. Messages left with the district attorney’s offices in San Angelo were not returned. In Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, Sheriff David Doran was unavailable for comment.
Meisner said four CPS caseworkers were continuing to conduct a building-to-building search for more children inside the sprawling complex of buildings. It is the intention of CPS officials to remove all children from the ranch for interviews in Eldorado, she said.
Meisner said all of the children removed from the ranch had been interviewed as of Saturday afternoon. She said the children and women had been taken to multiple locations in Eldorado, including the Eldorado Civic Center, The First Baptist Church and an undisclosed third location.
When asked how long CPS officials would be in Eldorado, Meisner said the investigation could continue “for a while.”
52 removed Friday
On Friday, state officials said they had removed 52 girls from the sect’s compound. On Thursday, authorities blocked access to the outpost in response to a report of child abuse, officials said.
The girls, ranging from 6 months to 17 years old, were put on buses Friday at the YFZ Ranch outside Eldorado and driven north to San Angelo, where they were being housed at a civic center, Child Protective Services officials said.
Eighteen were taken into legal custody and will be placed in foster care, CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said.
“We’re assessing their needs and making arrangements for their placement,” Crimmins said. “The caseworkers need to have an opportunity to assess their needs.
“Legally, logistically it’s a challenge for us — the number of children we’re removing into care all at once in a sparsely populated part of the state. I don’t know how difficult it will be to place them, but we will do so.”
A search warrant authorized state troopers to enter the retreat run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and look for evidence of a marriage between the girl and a 50-year-old man. The search warrant said the girl had a baby eight months ago, when she was 15.
The warrant was issued in Tom Green County for records dealing with the births of children to a 16-year-old girl and her marriage to Dale Barlow, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times. The main office of the district attorney responsible for Schleicher County is in San Angelo, in Tom Green County.
Late Friday, DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said an arrest warrant has been issued in the case, but she would not disclose the name on the warrant.
“We have been working very closely with the adults at the ranch, and they have been assisting us in our search,” she told The Associated Press.
Late Thursday afternoon, DPS troopers, Texas Rangers and Schleicher County sheriff’s deputies sealed off roads leading to the ranch, Eldorado residents said. About midnight, authorities entered the compound, and CPS caseworkers began interviewing people living there.
Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor’s office received a report on Tuesday that an underage girl had been sexually and physically abused by someone inside the compound.
Authorities were also told that people inside the compound might be armed and dangerous.
“That was a concern for law enforcement,” Black said. “They were proceeding very cautiously.” Among those removed from the ranch were young children and their underage mothers, he said.
The sect’s prophet
In 2003, one of the followers of Warren Jeffs, the so-called prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, purchased the ranch near Eldorado after authorities started to scrutinize the group’s polygamous activities in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
As authorities ratcheted up the pressure on the sect, Jeffs disappeared from public view. He was long rumored to make appearances at the group’s sprawling and rapidly growing Eldorado compound, but his presence there was never confirmed.
Later that year, Jeffs was charged in Arizona with sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. But he was nowhere to be found. In June 2006, he was added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
In August 2006, he was arrested outside Las Vegas on a routine traffic stop.
After his arrest, he was extradited and charged in Utah for his role in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
The move to Eldorado
Eldorado, a livestock and mohair center on the Edwards Plateau, is home to about 1,800 of the 2,800 residents of Schleicher County.
In 2003, when word first spread in the town that the group had purchased the former exotic-game ranch, the sect’s outpost was compared with the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
As multiple buildings were built, including the multistory white temple, Jeffs’ followers kept to themselves. Randy Mankin, an Eldorado newspaper editor who has tracked the group since its members arrived, said no one outside the compound knew how many people were living there. His best estimate is 350 to 400.
“You fly over, and you see lots of kids, but if the sheriff goes in or the chief appraiser goes in there, you don’t see them because they keep them under lock and key,” he said.
After Jeffs’ arrest and trial, locals’ curiosity about the sect began to subside.
Thelma Bosmans, who lives on the road to the compound, said it had been quiet in the area until early Friday, when she saw a parade of vehicles — first state game warden trucks, and then state troopers — move in.
“It’s crazy here. It’s hysterical,” she said.
Bosmans said she watched as the girls were bused out.
“They were just staring out the windows, staring at the cameras. It was sad,” she said. “Can you imagine how hard it’s going to be for them … because it’s different out here?”
Mankin said residents were caught off guard by the sudden presence of law enforcement.
“I didn’t see this coming, and I don’t think anyone else did either,” Mankin said. “It’s quite an onslaught. Nobody really knows how much is going on, but it gives you the impression that a whole lot is going on.”
Staff writer Jack Douglas Jr. contributed to this report.