A week after the raid at the YFZ Ranch began, the investigation is winding down, and new details are emerging about what happened inside the compound near Eldorado as authorities moved through it executing search warrants.
When officials asked to enter the massive temple, for example, about 57 men who live on the ranch formed a line around the huge white building to offer, for the most part, superficial resistance.
Texas Ranger Capt. Barry Caver said he asked that the temple door be left open or that a key to unlock it be provided so law enforcement agents could search the building.
Merrill Jessop, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints community that lives on the ranch, reportedly told law enforcement officers that the men of the ranch would be in violation of their religious belief if they did not try to defend the holy place. They didn’t unlock the door, and it had to be physically breached, Caver said during a news conference Thursday.
One man was arrested on a charge of interfering with the duties of a public servant.
The temple was empty when officials went in.
The FLDS is a Mormon splinter sect that practices a form of polygamy that involves men having several “spiritual” wives. The sect parted with the Mormon Church when the latter renounced polygamy decades ago.
As the investigation on the YFZ ranch ended Wednesday, a new phase began as authorities began to search through “volumes and volumes” of evidence found at the ranch, authorities said.
All the 416 children removed from the ranch and sequestered in San Angelo have now been individually interviewed, and some may be interviewed again, said Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for Child Protective Services.
Also Thursday, officials from NewBridge Family Shelter in San Angelo and the National Domestic Violence Hotline said their agencies will work with similar domestic abuse groups in Utah to get training to help victims from plural families such as those from the YFZ Ranch.
Tammy Harris, NewBridge executive director, said her agency contacted CPS once it took calls from a girl at the FLDS compound and determined she is 16. On a separate day, NewBridge contacted law enforcement.
Phone operators are not allowed to get help for a caller unless the caller asks for assistance, said Sheryl Cates, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the leader of the Texas Council on Family Violence.
“When we go to the phones, we have to believe that call,” Cates said in response to a question about the authenticity of the FLDS calls. “Our job is to assess that situation.”
NewBridge does not record phone conversations, but phone operators take notes, Harris said.
Harris said she was surprised to learn of the number of women and children living at the compound. The state has removed 416 children from the ranch and taken them into custody, and 139 women have left, in many cases to stay with their children.
Officials continue to try to locate the 16-year-old girl who made the phone call.
Caver and Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran’s briefing will be the last by law enforcement about the raid for some time, said Tela Mange, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public safety.
It offered a brief glimpse of the raid that started last week and has been described as tense but calm.
During the temple incursion, some men knelt and prayed, and others sobbed as law enforcement officials entered the temple, Caver said. During the raid, children were shuffled from house to house as law enforcement officers searched the buildings.
“Early on, we developed a relationship with Merrill Jessop on the property,” Caver said. “We told him why we were there, and who we needed to talk to. We knew the temple would be the most sensitive area, and if there was going to be resistance, it would be there.”
Doran said some children were hidden from law enforcement officials during the ranch search. He was repeatedly asked about an informant who, according to court documents released Wednesday, said a bed was in the temple where males older than 17 engage in sexual activity with female children younger than 17.
Doran declined to discuss his informant Thursday, saying only that the informant has provided valuable information to his office over the years. He also declined to say where the informant lives.
Doran also was pressed as to why his office did not raid the ranch before last week.
“They don’t openly talk and don’t openly answer questions,” Doran said. “You can only press someone so far without having a criminal investigation going on. You can’t just go up to someone and start harassing them because you think they have (illicit activity). You have to have some good information.”
Caver said that during his multiple trips to ranch in recent years, most residents stayed inside the house, and he dealt mainly with a handful of people there.
Caver said about 60 to 70 people, mainly men and some elderly women, remain on the ranch and have apparently resumed their normal lives.
Law enforcement agencies tried to be as unintrusive as possible during the search, Doran said.
A dog unit was taken to the ranch to investigate reports of unmarked graves on the ranch, but none was found. Two graves were found, but the group had already been documented them.
They also found shredded paper but there was no way to tell when it was shredded, Caver said. An incinerator also was found.
Caver said no shots were ever fired on the ranch.
During the search, law enforcement allowed the people to “take care of necessary things in a controlled manner” Doran said.
“They do have a large operation out there,” Doran said. “We dealt with the issues we had to deal with.
“They had freedom to move around in their day-to-day operations, but we had safety issues of law enforcement officers that we had to deal with.”
Standard-Times staff writer Jayna Boyle contributed to this story.