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Attorneys, media, others descend on San Angelo for FLDS custody hearing

Published: Thursday, April 17 2008 9:15 a.m. MDT

San Angelo resident Felix Rojax watches TV and shares his views on the FLDS raid. He said he hopes the children are OK.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Attorneys, the media and polygamist wives in long flowing dresses already have started filtering into the downtown courthouse and City Hall auditorium here for what is anticipated to be at least a day-long hearing to determine the fate of 416 Fundamentalist LDS Church children.

A variety of police cars, huge satellite TV trucks from a number of media outlets and a host of other visitors have been crammed into this west Texas town for what is said to be the nation's largest ever child custody case.

Because of the crowds, the hearing before Judge Barbara Walther also is being teleconferenced in the expansive auditorium of City Hall, a four-story building constructed in 1928.

Security demands are such that public safety officials from all disciplines — including fire marshals and a narcotics detective who was working front-door security — are being tapped to make sure things go smoothly.

Outside the courthouse on the sidewalk was Mary Batchelor, executive director of Principle Voices. The Utah-based organization has worked closely with Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in setting up the so-called "safety net," which seeks to bridge the gap between polygamists and state bureaucracies. She said today that her group was shocked by the April 3 raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and that it was reminiscent of similar raids that occurred in Utah in the 1930s , '40s and '50s.

Those raids, she said, also were prompted by allegations of child abuse, claims that were later proven to be unsubstantiated.

"We ask that people not rush to judgment," Batchelor said.

While not officially affiliated with the FLDS religion, Batchelor said she is here to support the families.

"Our hearts go out to the mothers. We'd like to see reunification if possible," she said.

Richard, one of the polygamist fathers who has a 3-month-old child in state custody in the San Angelo Coliseum, tried to enter the courthouse today but finally gave up because the lines were so long.

"We don't trust the judicial system to give us justice and fairness. We trust in God," he said.

The father said he hoped to be able to witness the court hearing in the overflow at City Hall.

As the eyes of the nation turn to San Angelo today, the city's residents said they worry about the fate of the 416 children taken from a polygamous compound and largely stand by their state's actions.

"As far as the community, if anything it's going to bring us closer together," said Roman Thomas, who was manning the counter at his parents' restaurant, RJ Bar B Que, Wednesday. "Our biggest deal right now is bringing the kids to safety. The people of San Angelo will pull together, make sure the kids are safe, and work things out after that."

Thomas paused to take a walk-in order of ribs before finishing his thoughts about the fate of the FLDS children whose lives are on hold.

"I'm a religious man and as far as being a Christian, what religion could possibly be out there that would be involved with child abuse? I never heard of that religion. That might be their beliefs. To be honest, I just think they should blow the whole deal up there."

Marisa Gasca and Tiffany Holmes nodded to each other when asked if they thought Texas had done the right thing in taking the children from their parents.

"To me, I thought that was kind of tragic to have their kids taken away like that. That's a tragic thing to do to a child, to rip them away from their mother like that," said Gasca, who was sitting on the front porch of a home across the street from the historic Fort Concho, which housed most of the children before they were all recently moved across town to the San Angelo Coliseum.

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