YEARNING FOR ZION RANCH, Texas – Emptiness echoes off this polygamist community’s once-lush lawns, now parched and brown.
Earthmovers and excavators sleep silently over vacant quarries and construction sites.
And the schoolhouse sits frozen in time, its half-finished spelling tests and chalky blackboard lessons a reminder of the religious sect’s absent children.
Mothers have scattered across the state, moving into motels to be close to their children’s foster homes. Fathers have returned to the Utah-Arizona border where their Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is based, jittery that their other families will be targeted.
Just a few dozen elderly women and young men – plus a handful of sect leaders sent from Utah to manage the legal crisis – remain at the ranch, a fraction of the estimated 700 people living there before the raid.
“This has turned from a thriving city into a ghost town,” Utah-based FLDS leader Willie Jessop said as he navigated a luxury Mercedes SUV past a herd of hapless dairy cows, their unused milk being dumped out in the garden. “What do you build homes for if you don’t have children to put in them? What do you grow a garden for if you don’t have anybody to feed? Will life return out here? That has yet to be seen.”
State officials, who raided the ranch last month over allegations of underage marriage and child sex abuse, said their goal was not to destroy the Mormon breakaway sect’s way of life in Texas – but to ensure that its children were safe.
Child Protective Services’ role “is to protect children, to make sure they are safe and secure from abuse or neglect, or the risk of abuse and neglect,” agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. “The investigation has focused solely on that, and nothing more.”
Though the abuse hotline call that sparked Texas’ largest-ever child welfare investigation now appears to have been a hoax, investigators say they saw enough pregnant teenagers and young mothers on the ranch to suspect minor girls were being married to much older men.
Members of the sect have furiously disputed this claim. But for those forced to turn over their children and grandchildren, this anger is eclipsed by heartbreaking sadness – and an already deep nostalgia for a life they may never reclaim.
Standing amid Nike Air Jordan sneakers and orthopedic house shoes on the porch of one of the commune’s few occupied homes, Kathryn Jessop offers a pained smile. She said she wishes she’d never taken for granted the sound of her grandchildren’s voices as they traipsed across the lawn collecting wildflowers or recited their evening prayers.
“These children have been so happy here,” said Mrs. Jessop, who was seized from her own childhood home 55 years ago in the infamous Short Creek, Ariz., raid. “To be taken away from your parents, from everything you know – I didn’t think I’d see this again in my lifetime.”
City and county officials say they’d be surprised if the 1,700-acre ranch, which contributed more than $400,000 to the region’s property tax rolls last year, shut its doors. But the gloomy desolation of this once-industrious community makes it hard to imagine a resurgence.
Men no longer scale the green roofs of the giant communal residences, making repairs to the immaculate Lincoln Log construction. They no longer split slabs of limestone inside the gaping pink stone quarry, or run spools of electrical cables underground. And the craggy fields and rows of fruit trees, normally solid with women and children, are empty.
Inside the schoolhouse, portraits of the ranch’s founder and prophet Warren Jeffs – who is in prison on charges related to marrying underage girls to older men – stare out over empty desks. “The ones that are going to survive are the sweetest and the purest,” promises a quote from Mr. Jeffs’ father, Rulon Jeffs, on a classroom door.
Only the ranch’s sacred temple, with its creamy white stone and flawless geometry, appears unaltered – though investigators forced entry into it during their search for evidence.
For the sect leaders brought in from Utah to defend the ranch – a holy land chosen by Mr. Jeffs in 2004 for his most fervent adherents – this devastation triggers unbridled outrage. They believe what has happened to Yearning For Zion is textbook persecution, based on the “misconceptions” that their faith condones underage marriages and teen pregnancy. While there may be a few instances of both on the ranch, they say, it is no more prevalent here than in any urban community in America.
And they’re convinced that Texas authorities are on a witch hunt, leaking salacious, unfounded rumors and out-of-context details to sway public opinion. Some of their anger is directed at President Bush, who they call the poster child for the state they thought they could count on for religious freedom.
In between marathon sessions with dozens of attorneys, these private people are coming face to face with the insatiable media and the realization that if they don’t stand up for themselves publicly, no one will.
“To have your children ripped out of your home, to have a single search warrant wipe out an entire community, to have such a blatant disregard for the truth,” Mr. Jessop said. “It’s like a dream, where you keep waking up and thinking, ‘This could’ve never happened.’ ”
State officials say that the children are their priority and that they are making decisions with their best interests in mind.
“It is important to remember that this investigation and removal [of children] has proceeded only with the continued authorization of the court,” Mr. Crimmins said.
And they stand by the news they’ve released publicly, whether it’s the number of pregnant teens, broken bones, or the fact that they haven’t ruled out sexual assault of young males.
They would not comment on Mr. Jessop’s assertion that investigators are misrepresenting the tenets of the FLDS faith, or his comparisons of teen pregnancy and marriage rates on the ranch to mainstream America.
The relocation of many of the commune’s residents since the April raid has posed yet another set of hurdles for state investigators, who are already struggling to determine which parents belong to which children. Mr. Crimmins said it has proved “very difficult” to get family information assembled.
Meanwhile, Jerry Strickland, a spokesman with the Texas attorney general’s office, said the state will “commit the resources needed to engage in criminal prosecution,” regardless of which cities or states the trail of evidence leads to.
It’s this promise of persistence that keeps Harold – one of the few young men left behind to care for the ranch – up at night. The 22-year-old, who mans a half-completed guard house and zips around the perimeter on an all-terrain vehicle, said he can’t shake his fright.
“Before, there was only peace out here. There wasn’t one bit of ire,” said Harold, who declined to give his last name. “Now, you don’t know if someone is going to barge into your room while you’re sleeping.”
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