ELDORADO — Three-year-old Anne Jessop sat on a pink-and-purple tricycle while 7-year-old brother Ephraim perched himself on a dolly, their heads together in whispered fun.
Nearby, another brother, 5-year-old Russell, rode a bike. But Zachery, a 9-year-old brother, leaned quietly against a wall outside the woodshop, his wary eyes cast on yet another group of strangers visiting the Yearning For Zion Ranch.
The children and their parents, Edson Jessop, 51, and Zavenda Young, 43, had been home just a little over 24 hours Wednesday. They drove all night from Hockley in Harris County, where Anne and Russell had been staying at the Boys and Girls Country. Zachery and Ephraim were picked up first from a children’s facility in Waco.
“It’s just wonderful to have them all here,” Young said. “I was lonesome when they were gone.”
‘A few returned’
The four siblings were among the few children seen during a tour of the 1,700-acre ranch Wednesday where life is far from getting back to normal for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist sect.
“There are a few returned, and we’ll be grateful when more come,” Jessop said.
Jessop said his children were well-cared-for at the two facilities.
Zachery emerged as a leader, asking questions of his caregivers until he understood and could explain things to the other children.
Anne’s spunky spirit charmed the women who cared for her; they cried as they bid farewell Tuesday.
Although Jessop’s family has returned, most of the others are staying away from the ranch for the time being. An FLDS spokesman said bad memories of the state’s April 3 raid are keeping them in temporary homes around Texas where they had relocated to be close to their children.
There were few signs of life in the midday heat Wednesday. A man led Holsteins and brown Swiss cows into a barn to be milked, but the milk wouldn’t be made into cheese because there are so few mouths to feed.
Initial call a hoax?
Edson Jessop’s brother, Guy, 48, bemoaned the weeds in one of two huge vegetable gardens. Large trucks and heavy equipment sat idle, the need to complete a vehicle repair facility and guard house no longer pressing.
The group lived a largely isolated life the past four years until an armored personnel carrier and dozens of law enforcement officers arrived with a search warrant to look for a 16-year-old girl and an older man.
The girl was never found, and authorities now believe the initial call may have been a hoax.
But child welfare officials were alarmed at finding girls who looked underage who were pregnant or already had children and removed more than 450 children.
But last week, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with a lower court that evidence of five girls who may have been sexually abused did not warrant the mass removal, and ordered the children returned.
Girl, 16, protected
A spokesman for Texas Child Protective Services said that as of noon Wednesday, the last of the children in state custody had been picked up by their guardians.
The number of underage girls thought to have been sexually abused because they were forced into a spiritual union with an adult male or impregnated by an adult has ranged from five to as many as 31. Now, that number stands at 11 girls, ages 12 to 17, according to a source close to the investigation.
One of those girls is thought to be a 16-year-old whose separate release Tuesday came with extra conditions after her lawyer claimed the girl was a victim of sexual abuse.
The court order signed by state District Judge Barbara Walther allows the girl, a daughter of jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, to be reunited in a private Bexar County residence with her mother, Annette Jeffs.
Walther’s order also stipulates she cannot reside outside of Bexar County; cannot have contact with her father, a convicted sex offender awaiting a second trial in Arizona; or another alleged perpetrator, a man in his late 30s whose relationship to the girl is not established in the court order.
Natalie Malonis, the girl’s attorney, said she felt her client’s safety would be jeopardized without the special protections.
‘Spots on a leopard’
For Edson Jessop, the April raid brought back family memories. His ancestors converted to Mormonism in England in 1861 and through five generations, they “have gone through persecutions and even spent time in prison for their religion,” he said.
Documents taken from the ranch and introduced in court in San Angelo, known as the “Bishop’s Records,” show Edson Jessop having five spiritual wives and more than 40 children. “Why does the world want to change me?” he asked. “It’s like trying to change the spots on a leopard. We are what we are.”
Houston Chronicle reporter Terri Langford and San Antonio Express-News reporter Lisa Sandberg contributed to this report.
• Houston Chronicle religion news and features: Houston Belief
We appreciate your support
One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.