As the storm continues swirling around the polygamist sect whose compound near Eldorado was raided, Barbara Lane Walther is trying to make some sense of it.
Walther, the 51st District judge, issued search warrants based on accusations of a pattern of sexual abuse of youths for the West Texas compound occupied by followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the order that 416 children there be taken into state custody.
The 55-year-old Republican judge has been thrown into the limelight with the biggest case she has presided over. Those who know her say she's the right person for the job.
"I cannot think of any judge who is better qualified and better prepared and better suited to handle a thing of this magnitude," said Rob Junell, a former Democratic state representative from San Angelo and now U.S. district judge in Midland. "She's the kind of person you'd want to be the judge in this type of case."
He and others say Walther, whose district includes Coke, Irion, Schleicher, Sterling and Tom Green counties, has been a steady force in West Texas courtrooms for years, presiding over cases ranging from murder to a monkey biting a teenager.
The raid began April 3, triggered by a 16-year-old girl's calls to a West Texas family violence shelter alleging sexual abuse by her 50-year-old "spiritual husband."
The case landed in Walther's courtroom, where she has presided over search warrants and arrest warrants and issued the order to bring the children out of the compound. Before her have landed affidavits detailing how older men forced underage girls to have sex during spiritual marriages.
Walther will hold custody hearings today for the 416 children, who will each be paired with an attorney.
Walther, who had polio as a child and wears a leg brace, is known as hardworking and especially compassionate to children.
She has worked as a legislative liaison and gained a solid reputation behind the bench. She and her radiologist husband, Steven, have two grown children.
"She is always very gracious," said Junell, who has known Walther more than 25 years and often tried cases in her courtroom. "She can be tough if she needs to be.
"Her manner is not to be that way, but if people are not following the rules, she can be very firm."
Guy Choate, a San Angelo attorney who has known Walther more than 45 years, said the judge isn't one to shirk from a massive case that could go on for years.
"She didn't look for this challenge, but she's not going to run away from it either," said Choate, also a state bar director in San Angelo.
Choate and others are working to find attorneys to represent each of the 416 children at no cost. There are only about 80 lawyers in San Angelo who might be available, Choate said.
Junell said he called Walther a few days ago, offering to call the state bar in nearby Midland-Odessa.
"They're going to need lawyers throughout West Texas to represent these children," Junell said. "I told her I know how difficult things must be and that our thoughts and prayers are with her.
State Rep. Drew Darby, 61, has known Walther most of his life. He said Walther knows what she's up against in this case.Comment on this story
"This will be in her courtroom for years," said Darby, R-San Angelo. "The magnitude of this event is just unprecedented."There's not a solution for these issues, just a managed result, and I don't know what that is. Whatever it is, I have confidence Judge Walther will come to that considered and prayerful conclusion."
This story first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday.