Accusations that a 50-year-old man illegally married and had sex with a now-16-year-old girl led to the removal Friday of 52 girls from a secretive Schleicher County polygamist compound. [Update: 183 women, children taken from Texas compound]
Some of the girls, ages 6 months to 17 years, showed signs of having been abused or were in danger of abuse, said state Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner.
Those 18 girls have been placed in CPS custody, Meisner said.
“We’re dealing with many victims,” she said. “There’s evidence they have been abused, or are at imminent risk of harm. It is not safe for them to remain on the compound.”
Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange said Friday evening officers were still searching for Dale Barlow, identified as the subject of an arrest warrant – signed by 51st District Judge Barbara Walther on Thursday afternoon and released just before 5 p.m. Friday.
According to the warrant, authorities were to seize any records or documents detailing the marriage of Barlow and the 16-year-old and the resulting birth about eight months ago of a girl. It also orders the seizure of computer equipment, hard drives and data storage equipment from the ranch, as well as DVDs, videotapes and photographs.
Meisner said it’s not clear whether the girl or her baby were among the 52 removed from the ranch. The Standard-Times does not identify those listed as victims of alleged sex-related crimes.
According to state law, a girl younger than 17 cannot consent to have sex unless her partner is less than three years older than she, or she is married. Girls younger than 16, however, cannot be married, even with parental consent, and according to the birth date listed in the warrant, the girl was only 15 when she gave birth.
Those who have left the sect in years past have described a world in which children are raised in isolation, taught to distrust outsiders and always obey the commands of the group’s autocratic leaders, which for decades consisted of Warren Jeffs and his father, Rulon Jeffs.
The warrant led a swarm of state law enforcement personnel to enter the isolated, 1,700-acre ranch a few miles northeast of Eldorado, stirring another round of national media attention for the rural community of 1,700 about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
“It’s not uncommon for CPS when we’re initiating an investigation to work with law enforcement,” Meisner said. “Circumstances are different here because of the number of children on the ranch.”
Officials estimated 150 people live inside the compound, which was built by the Mormon splinter group starting in 2004.
The sect, which is not affiliated with the mainstream Mormon Church, has been the target of numerous investigations by Arizona and Utah officials after allegations of child abuse, forced marriage and polygamy. Most sect members live in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., along the two states’ borders.
Barlow, a former Colorado City, Ariz., resident, pleaded no contest last year in a separate case to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor and was sentenced to 45 days in an Arizona jail.
Schleicher County officials were informed late Thursday that law enforcement planned to enter the ranch, said Justice of the Peace James Doyle.
“It’s been in the making for a while,” Doyle said Friday. “They were supposed to move in yesterday evening with enough personnel to be ready for whatever. I guess they did.”
The girls removed from the compound were being interviewed Friday night, Meisner said, and CPS was providing cots and food for them in the city’s civic center.
Warren Jeffs led the group, which broke from the Mormon Church more than 100 years ago, from his father’s death in 2002 until 2007, when he was found guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin and sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.
The group, under increasing legal pressure in Arizona and Utah, bought the Schleicher County ranchland in late 2003 under the name “Yearning For Zion” and began constructing the compound in 2004, completing their work with an enormous temple visible from County Road 300, where the ranch’s front entrance is.
That entrance was blocked from both directions by a number of marked and unmarked DPS vehicles Thursday night and throughout Friday.
“We really just handled it like any other incident,” Meisner said. “It’s just on a grander scale.”
Phinney reported from Eldorado.
About the FLDS
• What: The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon-based sect that broke away from the mainstream LDS more than 100 years ago and is not affiliated with the Mormon Church.
• Who: Led for decades by Rulon Jeffs and, after his death in 2002, by his son, Warren Jeffs, who was convicted in 2007 on a charge of rape by accomplice for arranging marriages between adult men in his sect and unwilling underage girls. He was sentenced to five years to life in prison by a Utah judge. The sect is believed to have 10,000 followers.
• Where: The FLDS is based in the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. In 2004, the group built a compound including a large temple on the YFZ Ranch, three miles northeast of Eldorado. Other compounds are believed to exist in Colorado and Canada.
• Controversy: The sect, which broke from the mainstream LDS after the latter’s renunciation of polygamy, has been a target of Arizona and Utah authorities because of numerous allegations of child abuse, forced marriage and polygamy.