SAN ANGELO, Texas – Authorities struggled today to persuade children to give them any information about the goings-on inside a breakaway Mormon compound built by jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs south of this West Texas city.
Investigating a report of an underage marriage, child welfare and law enforcement authorities were searching for a fourth day for any children and documents at the nearly 1,700-acre compound in Eldorado.
Authorities moved more than 220 women and children Sunday from Eldorado to a historic fort-turned-museum in San Angelo, about 40 miles north. Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said investigators wanted all the children and women to stay in one location as caseworkers continue interviews.
But with large extended families in the group making identifications difficult and children afraid of outsiders, information was hard to obtain.
“When children live in a pretty secluded environment and they’re as sheltered as these children, it’s very difficult to get them to talk to you and to open up. If you can get them to a neutral place, they’re a lot more prone to answer you truthfully,” said Debra Brown, who is with a local child advocacy group that is representing the children in legal proceedings.
So far, only 18 children have been legally put in state custody, but Meisner said more court action was likely Monday. Brown said with a backlog of cases in the Texas foster care system, placing all the children will be difficult.
State troopers armed with a search warrant raided the ranch on Friday to look for evidence of a marriage between 50-year-old Dale Barlow and a teen who called authorities a week ago. The girl allegedly had a baby at 15; under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.
Authorities were still not sure Monday whether the girl was among those taken from the compound.
Midday Sunday, dozens of women and children, mostly girls, were seen boarding buses on their way to San Angelo, about 45 miles away north of Eldorado. The women wore long pastel dresses and many carried bedding; several had infants.
Prosecutor Allison Palmer said other law enforcement agencies “know where (Barlow) is and have talked to him, but our investigators have not.”
Barlow’s probation officer, Bill Loader, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in Arizona. A call to Loader by The Associated Press was not returned Sunday.
Barlow was sentenced to jail last year after pleading no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. He was ordered to register as a sex offender for three years while he is on probation.
The search warrant instructed officers to look for marriage records or other evidence linking the teen to the man and the baby. The warrant authorized the seizure of computer drives, CDs, DVDs or photos.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headed by Jeffs after his father’s death in 2002, broke away from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
The compound sits down a narrow paved road and behind a hill that shields it almost entirely from view in Eldorado, a town of fewer than 2,000 surrounded by sheep ranches nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. Only the 80-foot-high white temple can be seen on the horizon.
FLDS church members began building the compound several years ago as authorities in Arizona and Utah began increasingly scrutinizing the group.
Jeffs is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., where he awaits 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.
The investigation prompted by the girl’s call last week was the first in Texas involving the sect.