Sect families hesitant to return to ranch

ELDORADO — Mother-and-child reunions continued around the state Tuesday but most families belonging to a polygamist sect are staying away from the windswept ranch they used to call home — at least temporarily.

Only about a third of the families are expected back at the Yearning For Zion Ranch this week, said Willie Jessop, an elder with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that believes in polygamy. The rest will remain scattered in houses and apartments in various locations for an undetermined time as they seek space and privacy to reconnect with their children.

“They are taking the long way home,” Jessop said in a phone interview. “We fully support them as they go and do whatever they need to do as a family trying to rehabilitate.”

Fear and bad memories are keeping the families from returning, Jessop said, though he added he believes that is what most want to do. Many are still working through the trauma of the massive law enforcement raid that began April 3.

The raid led to about 450 children being removed from the ranch and placed in state custody. Child welfare officials said they believed that all the children were at risk of abuse because of what they said were practices of spiritually marrying underage girls to older men.

Focus shifts to males

As of Tuesday, 397 children had been returned to their parents, state officials said.

With the custody battle concluded for now, the focus has shifted to building criminal cases against male members suspected of having underage brides — if they can be found.

Two weeks ago at their children’s custody hearings, a number of mothers, including a wife of YFZ leader Merrill Jessop, testified that their spouses had disappeared, leaving no forwarding information.

A source close to the investigation said authorities believe many of the men who were at the ranch at the time of the raid have gone underground. “The vast majority have been moved,” said the source, who could not be quoted by name because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

Also Tuesday, the judge overseeing the case signed an order prohibiting sect leader Warren S. Jeffs from having any kind of contact with his 16-year-old daughter, the New York Times reported. The order does not accuse Jeffs, who is in prison for forcing an under-age girl into marriage, of abusing his daughter. The girl’s lawyers have said she was sexually abused by other sect members.

The judge also prohibited a man named Raymond Jessop from contacting the girl. It was unclear how Jessop is related to her, the newspaper reported.

With few, if any, FLDS members eager to turn on fellow members, the state may have to base a possible criminal case on physical evidence alone.

There are many challenges.

It’s not clear if all the men who once lived on the ranch submitted to DNA testing, despite a court order to do so. State authorities don’t know the number or the identities of the men who lived on the ranch at the time of the raid. They simply have DNA samples from 33 male sect members who showed up in Eldorado last month to provide cheek swabs and three men who did so outside of Texas.

While the first batch of DNA results began arriving in civil court on Monday, results from all 599 DNA samples should be in by Friday. But the evidence is for the civil court and cannot be shared with law enforcement officials without a court order.

“Making it available would be at the discretion of (the judge who handled the custody matter),” said Janice Rolfe, spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General’s office.

Search warranted?

Also, questions have been raised about the search warrant used to launch the raid.

The warrant was based on telephone calls from a female who said she was a teenager spiritually married to an older man at the ranch and had been sexually and physically abused. But the calls have since been discredited as a hoax.

Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities continued to examine thousands of documents, including wedding photographs and letters to and from top leaders, discovered in locked safes seized in the raid.

With their followers scattered across the Western states, FLDS leaders kept in touch through letters. Hundreds of pieces of mail were discovered in safes.

The reunions began Monday after a San Angelo judge ordered the children returned to their parents after the Texas Supreme Court said their removal was unwarranted. The court upheld an appeals court ruling that found that the potential sexual abuse of five girls was not legally sufficient reason for Child Protective Services to take custody of all the children.

State District Judge Barbara Walther’s order requires parents to allow child welfare workers access to the children, who cannot leave Texas.

The same day, Willie Jessop said the FLDS was changing church policy to follow Texas law, which allows 16-year-olds to marry with their parents’ consent. The Legislature last year increased the age for marrying with parental consent from 14 to 16 because of the FLDS group.

On Tuesday, the last of the FLDS children being housed in Houston-area foster care facilities were picked up by their parents, CPS spokeswoman Gwen Carter said.

Parents picked up eight children at Kidz Harbor near Liverpool in Brazoria County and two from Boys and Girls Country near Hockley in Harris County, she said. On Monday, 16 children left Kidz Harbor and three left Boys and Girls Country.

“It all went as planned,” Carter said.

Houston Chronicle reporters Terri Langford and Richard Stewart and San Antonio Express-News reporter Lisa Sandberg contributed to this report.

• Houston Chronicle religion news and features:>Houston Belief

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 4, 2008.
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