Child welfare worker describes FLDS ranch as 'scary environment'

Published: Thursday, April 17 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

San Angelo resident Bill McNurlen watches FLDS women and their attorneys walk from the Tom Green County Court House to San Angelo city hall for the FLDS custody hearing today.

Tim Hussin, Deseret News

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A child protective services supervisor took the stand this afternoon providing details for the first time about her encounter with FLDS members on the night of the raid.

Angie Voss testified she was escorted onto the YFZ Ranch in nearby Eldorado the night of April 3 by law enforcement officers. She was accompanied by a dozen case workers investigating complaints initially lodged by a 16-year-old girl named Sarah.

The girl had called a domestic violence hotline a few days earlier saying she was spiritually married to an older man who beat her, forced her to have sex, and held her at the ranch against her will. The caller said she had an 8-month-old baby and was several weeks pregnant with her second child. Voss said investigators hoped to find her among what they believed were about 150 people on the ranch.

In reality, there were more than 600 people there.

The supervisor testified that two men willingly let them inside after they had passed what she described as a guard tower several stories high with stairs leading to the top. She said there were men stationed at the tower.

She said she asked if there were any girls named Sarah living at the ranch. "They shook their heads and said there were no Sarahs living at the ranch," Voss said.

She and the caseworkers were then led into the school house, where they requested to talk with young women. She said soon after, the men on the compound began escorting young girls into individual classrooms. There were 15 girls in all.

When questioned by the state's attorney about the presence of men at the ranch, Voss said they were "everywhere. There were men standing at the doors, in the stairwells, in the schoolhouse," she testified.

She said the girls filed in and appeared polite and respectful, but she was nevertheless concerned.

"It was a very scary environment — intimidating. I was afraid. I saw men all over. It felt like the schoolhouse was surrounded," she said, "It was a fearful kind of environment."

Six hours after being on the ranch and talking to a variety of girls, Voss said the decision was made to remove some of the children from the complex. During interviews with young women there, she and others learned that "there's no age too young to be spiritually united."

She said she also learned from the girls that the marriages were dictated by the prophet and that they should have as many babies as they could.

Voss also said she began to realize there were more children at the ranch than authorities initially believed. In the morning on April 4, officials decided to bus many of the children to a civic center four miles away in Eldorado. At that time, she said the situation at the ranch was becoming really tense.

"I heard a report that a tank was coming on the property. Things were getting more scary to me. It was a situation of a very huge magnitude with so many law enforcement officers around," she testified. The case workers wanted to interview the children in an environment that didn't seem "so scary and dangerous."

Voss then went on to describe a crowd of mothers standing with their children who were uncooperative and did not wish to leave. It was then, Voss said, that Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran held up a cell phone and through the speaker, "Merril Jessop told the ladies they needed to cooperate and they just stopped" resisting.

When the state's attorney asked Voss how many in the crowd changed modes from being resistant to cooperative, she said it was about 30 or so. Jessop is the leader and bishop at the ranch.

As the children were being bused to the civic center, authorities began to conduct house-to-house searches looking for additional children. That continued until nightfall. When asked why the search was halted, Voss said it was decided it wasn't safe.

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