ELDORADO, Texas — Busload by busload, Texas child welfare authorities worked Sunday to find and remove all children from the compound of a polygamous sect, in an operation that relied on schools, churches and an abundance of rural good will.
By Sunday afternoon, 219 women and children had been removed from the ranch retreat. Officials transferred two more busloads in the evening; the number of people on those buses was not released. Despite intensive search efforts, authorities still have no positive identification of the 16-year-old girl whose abuse complaint sparked the raid.
“We didn’t know there would be this many [children], and we don’t know how many more there are,” said Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services.
The operation at the retreat built by followers of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs is likely the largest single investigation in the agency’s history, spokesman Patrick Crimmins said.
Of the nearly 200 children removed from the retreat, 18 are in temporary state custody, meaning there was sufficient evidence of abuse or an imminent danger in their cases.
The day’s events followed a night of tension at the YFZ Ranch, after officials tried, and eventually succeeded, at gaining peaceful access to the compound’s fortress-like temple.
State troopers armed with a search and arrest warrant entered the retreat on Thursday night, just days after the girl called to report that she’d had a child with a 50-year-old husband, Dale Barlow. Under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.
“We’re always concerned anytime we have a victim and we can’t find that victim,” Ms. Meisner said. “I am confident this girl does indeed exist.”
Mr. Barlow has been quoted as being in Arizona and denying that he knows the girl.
Ms. Meisner said that identifying girls from the compound can be difficult because they often change names. All of the removed women and children were taken to a neutral location at Fort Concho in San Angelo where they are being questioned to determine how many will enter temporary state custody and how many may return to the retreat.
There was no word Sunday on any criminal charges against the religious sect’s followers. A gag order was issued Friday that prevented law enforcement officials from commenting on the case.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints split from the Mormon church more than a century ago after the Mormons denounced polygamy. The FLDS sect believes that having multiple wives assigned by the church leader is the only way to get to the “Celestial Kingdom,” heaven’s holiest plane.
“Will they quit polygamy? I don’t think so,” said Eldorado Mayor John Nikolauk. Mr. Nikolauk, who has worked peacefully with some of the sect’s leaders, said the group remains tone deaf to criticisms of the outside world.
“They don’t see that as abuse. They see that as a woman’s obligation.”
In Eldorado, a nondescript ranching town with a population of 1,800, residents worked Sunday morning to help protect and care for the new faces in their midst, many of whom may have never left the retreat before.
Nowhere was the town’s struggle more evident than at the First Baptist Church, where Bible study classes were canceled, pews were noticeably empty and the bell choir was too short-handed to perform.
A wall away, 70 women and children from the compound were housed amid folding cots in the congregation’s fellowship hall. The church’s piano-pounding hymns, prayers for the guests and dark stained-glass windows did little to block out the police and reporters swarming outside, a presence this town of dollar stores and gas station coffee shops has grown accustomed to.
“That compound has put Eldorado on the map,” said Pastor Andy Anderson. “It never gets easy. We’re used to the scrutiny.”
But longtime residents of Eldorado know this time is different. This time, the neighbors they’ve whispered about and worried about from afar are front and center — living in their community centers, eating in their churches and bathing at their local high school. The reaction has been an outpouring of support: Convenience store owners donating shopping carts full of diapers and dry goods. Church congregations providing three meals a day. Residents with their own financial woes handing the mayor $20 bills to help offset the cost.
“This town, nothing surprises me,” said Mr. Nikolauk, his eyes reddening with tears. “Yeah, I get emotional about it. I couldn’t be prouder of this town. We’ve even had to turn away people wanting to wash dishes.”
Lending a hand may be second nature. But most Eldoradans acknowledge that it’s still a balancing act between compassion and criticism. Though they’re called to duty, they still harbor resentment against the label the compound has slapped on their hometown.
A long-awaited tip
What nobody seems to know, however, is exactly how the ongoing investigation will affect the future of the polygamous group and its 1,700-acre ranch that sits on the end of a narrow road, shielded behind a hill. State troopers continued to block roads into and out of the compound on Sunday.
The sect was taken over by Mr. Jeffs after his father’s death in 2002. Mr. Jeffs is now jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial for four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives.
In November, he was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001.
Asked why the agency had not acted sooner given the revelations about the group in other states, Ms. Meisner said: “CPS can only go in and do an investigation if we receive a referral. This is the first referral that we’ve had.”
Some in town suspected that it was a tip the agency had been wanting for quite a while.
“They got the tip they’ve been waiting for, and I think they had the plan in place for how they were going to deal with it,” said Randy Mankin, editor in chief of the Eldorado Success newspaper.
But Mr. Mankin said he doesn’t believe this marks an end for the group’s presence on the outskirts of town.
“We thought it was the beginning of the end after Warren Jeffs got arrested,” he said. “But they kept building right up to the raid.”