SAN ANGELO, Texas – Where is the girl?
Thirteen days have passed since Texas authorities entered a polygamous sect’s ranch in Eldorado and removed every child living there, but they still do not know if they have the 16-year-old whose calls for help moved them to act.
And there are questions about whether she really exists.
“It’s all a farce,” says Annette, one FLDS woman whose children are in state custody.
Says Donna: “They searched. Did they find her?”
Skeptics point to a number of problems with the caller’s story, which Texas authorities acknowledge was key to the dramatic raid. No call for help, no raid.
FLDS women who were in state shelters with their children until Monday say investigators appeared desperate to find “Sarah” and were grilling girls by that name.
There also are discrepancies between what the girl said about her “spiritual husband” and what is known about the man later named in the search and arrest warrant first used to enter the YFZ Ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Authorities say a girl named Sarah made a series of telephone calls to the crisis line at NewBridge Family Shelter on March 29 and March 30.
In those calls, the girl talked of becoming the seventh wife of a 50-year-old man named “Dale” and conceiving her first child when she was 15, according to affidavits used to get the first search warrant. In a later call, she seemed to indicate he had three other wives living at the ranch.
She described being beaten by her husband, once so badly she needed treatment at a hospital for broken ribs.
The girl said she was pregnant and wanted to leave the ranch but had been warned of the dangers of the outside world and threatened with being locked up. She also said her parents, who lived out of state, were planning to send her younger sister to the ranch.
Two women who have worked with teens leaving the FLDS sect – Joni Holm of Utah and Flora Jessop of Arizona – say Sarah is real.
Holm said last week she has been in contact with people who know Sarah and believes she is among the girls now in state custody.
“They just have to keep weeding through them,” she said last week. Neither Holm nor Jessop returned calls from The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday.
But there are some who believe the story of a 16-year-old victim sounds concocted, that statements attributed to her don’t ring true.
“There is no verbage or terminology used that leads me to believe the statements were made by someone inside,” said Ezra Draper of Hildale, Utah, who left the FLDS sect six years ago. “I think it’s bunk.”
Examples: The term FLDS use to describe other people is “gentiles,” not outsiders, and they don’t observe such holidays as Easter Sunday, when the alleged victim claimed she was last beaten.
Susan Risdon, the crisis shelter spokeswoman, said the calls to the shelter were not recorded but that the two employees who spoke with the girl wrote down what she said.
“I think it’s the exact language,” Risdon said.
He points out that only the most worthy among the FLDS were called to live at the ranch. Those “FLDS wouldn’t have tolerated any abuse like that [the girl’s broken ribs] within their society,” he says.
Draper also wonders how the girl knew to call the shelter, given the isolation and control that authorities say those at the ranch experienced.
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who is representing the FLDS families, said there are “sufficient questions surrounding the authenticity of that call that cry out for an answer.”
On Monday, hours after being separated from the children taken into state custody, FLDS women claimed authorities appeared driven to find Sarah.
“They are trying to pin it on anybody named Sarah,” said Annette, who is back at the YFZ Ranch after more than a week in custody with her six children and five nieces and nephews she is raising.
Sarah is a common name and several are in custody, she said. One by one, the Sarahs have been interviewed, she said. “They find out and then let them go, then grab another one and try to find out and the let them go.”
“There is just not a Sarah that fits what they said,” said Annette.
Investigators have zeroed in on one Sarah in particular, Annette said. The girl, who has a 5-month-old daughter, is petite and looks young, so the investigators don’t believe she is 18, she said. She declined to name the girl’s husband, but said it is not Dale Evans Barlow, the Arizona man named in the initial arrest and search warrants.
One night, shortly before midnight, child welfare workers came into the dorm where the mothers with small children were and told this specific Sarah that she and her baby had to leave. In a phone call later, Sarah told other mothers she and her baby were sent to a house, alone, at Fort Concho, Annette and other women said.
On Tuesday, 51st District Judge Barbara Walther rejected an attempt by this Sarah’s family to have her recognized as an adult so she could be represented by a private attorney rather than an attorney ad litem.
Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said investigators are still looking for the 16-year-old who placed the calls, but she said she didn’t know whether they have any good candidates.
Texas Rangers interviewed Barlow on Saturday and Mange said they are still reviewing information he provided. She said Texas authorities are not ready yet to definitively clear him of any involvement with a 16-year-old girl in Texas.
Barlow, who was convicted in Arizona of sexual misconduct with a minor in 2007, has said he does not know the girl and has not been to Texas since 1977 – claims backed by his attorney and his Arizona probation officer.
A presentencing report prepared on Barlow by Arizona authorities states that he has three wives – all of whom, according to friends and family, live in Colorado City, Ariz. That contradicts the girl’s description of his family.
Some experts say it matters less if Sarah is never found or turns out not to exist.
It is the strength or weakness of the state’s evidence of alleged abuse found at the ranch that will matter when Judge Walther decides whether the 416 FLDS children will go to foster homes, they say.
John J. Sampson, a University of Texas law professor and expert on family law, said those cases will focus on what investigators found once they were at the ranch.
But if the state hopes to later bring criminal charges, they must find Sarah.
“The problem for the state is this girl is the linchpin that holds together any criminal case against the group or even any individual,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor.
Kristen Moulton contributed to this story.
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