ELDORADO — Tensions eased late Saturday after a standoff over whether authorities could search the sacred temple of a polygamist sect compound in West Texas.
After an hourslong stalemate, SWAT officers entered the temple in search of children to be questioned about possible abuse at the mysterious Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints‘ retreat.
Afterwards, a few of the residents left on a bus accompanied by a number of state troopers.
Fearing a worst-case scenario, officers had earlier in the evening called ambulances to the compound after leaders refused to allow authorities to search the temple.
Later, a stream of ambulances and law-enforcement vehicles left the compound.
Nearly 200 women and children have been removed from the compound in recent days, but police are still looking for others, including the 16-year-old girl whose abuse complaint triggered the massive raid Friday.
Searching the temple presented a possible point of contention with the sect members, who don’t allow nonbelievers inside, said Allison Palmer, an assistant district attorney for the 51st Judicial District, which includes Schleicher County, where the compound is located.
“The temple is a very sensitive area for residents at the ranch,” Palmer said.
While officers intended to proceed peacefully, the medical personnel were on hand “in case the worst possible case scenario were to develop,” she said.
Authorities and Child Protective Service workers spent Saturday interviewing the 46 young women and 137 children who have been removed from the complex so far.
CPS officials wouldn’t say whether the adults left voluntarily, but 18 of the children have been placed in state care because they either had been abused or were in imminent danger of abuse, CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said.
Placements have been found for the children, but Meisner said they hadn’t yet been moved from temporary shelters at the local civic center and a church community building.
“We’re really, really trying to be aware that their whole world has changed. We’re trying to be sensitive to the fact that we’ve taken them from their surroundings,” she said.
Also on Saturday, a San Angelo-based prosecutor said a man named in a Texas search and arrest warrant was being questioned by police in another state.
The warrant was issued after authorities received reports that the man had married the now 16-year-old girl who complained of abuse. The girl reportedly has an 8-month-old baby, authorities said.
“They are interviewing him elsewhere, but no arrest has been made,” Palmer said.
With law enforcement officers keeping the 1,700-acre fenced retreat blocked off, residents of the tight-knit West Texas community focused their efforts on feeding and comforting the displaced children.
Many in the windswept town of 2,000 bypassed the local spring festival with its tricycle races and goat-kissing booth to load bags of teddy bears, juice, snacks and diapers into the First Baptist Church building that’s serving as a temporary shelter. Two blocks away, members of the Church of Christ were preparing a dinner of fresh chicken, broccoli, bread and salad for the now homeless families.
“They couldn’t have picked a better community for this to have happened,” said Gary Shipman, a 46-year-old oil field worker, who helped unload $1,300 in supplies that his church had purchased.
The complex was founded by Warren Jeffs, who was convicted last September in Utah of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl. The sect leader is in the Mohave County Jail in Kingman, Ariz., facing charges of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.
Members of the reclusive Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints bought the isolated ranchland about four years ago and named it Yearn for Zion. Since then, they have built a massive white temple that pokes up on the horizon.
The Associated Press contributed.