Texas officials said Saturday that 183 individuals including 137 infants and children have been removed from the YFZ polygamist ranch in Eldorado.
In addition, ambulances were sent to the West Texas ranch as authorities said sect leaders refused to let them search for a 16-year-old member who reported being abused.
Law enforcement is "preparing for the worst" said prosecutor Allison Palmer, saying ambulances were being sent "in case this were to go in a way that no one wants."
Of the 137 children, 18 are in custody of the Texas Child Protective Services and have already been placed in foster homes in the area.
"They seem to be doing well, given the circumstances," said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
The individuals have been removed based on evidence of abuse or neglect, Crimmins said, "or the imminent threat there might be abuse or neglect and the grounds that we are unaware of other family or care-givers that we're sure could protect them from that abuse or neglect."
An ongoing investigation has resulted in the removal of the children 97 girls, 40 boys and 46 young women over the age of 18 for questioning in the case regarding reports that involve a 50-year-old man and his 16-year-old bride. They have been living on the YFZ Ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
Crimmins said more than 30 CPS agents have been involved in interviews with the women and children. Four CPS agents remain inside the compound, working with law enforcement, to ensure the safety of the children, he said. The removal was ordered by a judge. CPS could not confirm if they have actually found the 16-year-old girl.
More than 25,000 children go through Texas CPS each year, and Crimmins said 17,500 are currently in paid foster care. The number of children taken from YFZ Ranch is "challenging," he said, "but we are up to it."
Child welfare officials were looking for foster homes for the girls, most of whom have rarely been outside the insular world of the FLDS. They were being housed for now at a civic center.
"We're dealing with children that aren't accustomed to the outside world, so we're trying to be very sensitive to their needs," Marleigh Meisner, another CPS spokesperson, told the media during a press conference Saturday.
The investigation began after a 16-year-old living there complained of physical abuse. A search warrant, issued late Friday, authorized state troopers to enter the retreat and look for evidence of a marriage between the girl and Dale Barlow, 50.
The warrant said the girl had a baby eight months ago, when she was 15. Under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.
State troopers who raided the religious retreat were looking for the girl, her baby daughter and Barlow.
Barlow had not been found by Friday night, officials said then. They declined to comment Saturday, saying a state judge had issued a gag order.
The search warrant instructed officers to look for marriage records or other evidence linking the girl to Barlow and the baby. The warrant authorized the seizure of computer drives, CDs, DVDs or photos.
In a twist to the evolving story, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Saturday that Barlow's Arizona probation officer says Barlow has regularly reported to him and is not allowed to leave Arizona without permission. Arizona probation officer Bill Loader was quoted as saying Barlow told him he did not know the girl who has accused him. Barlow is on probation for pleading no contest in 2007 for conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. The victim in that case was a 16-year-old girl who had a child with him.
Those inside the Texas retreat did not respond to requests for comment.
The owner of the Sutton County Steak House in nearby Sonora, Texas, fed the children dinner on Friday and breakfast on Saturday, owner Linda Love told The San Angelo Standard-Times.
"They're singing songs. So happy and sweet and precious. It's heart-breaking," Love said.
State law enforcers declined to comment Saturday and the local sheriff did not return calls. A message line kept by the Department of Public Services stated there would be no further updates, due to a request by the local district attorney.
The 1,700-acre YFZ Ranch is the site of the polygamous sect's first-ever temple, which was completed in 2006. "YFZ" stands for Yearning for Zion, and is named after a song written by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
The property was initially purchased as a hunting retreat just outside of Eldorado, a town 200 miles northwest of San Antonio with a community of nearly 2,000 residents. Local media has estimated the LFDS ranch houses about 350 to 400 people.The group has been led by Jeffs since his father died in 2002. In November, Jeffs was sentenced to two consecutive 5-years-to-life sentences in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001. He is currently facing multiple charges of sexual misconduct and incest in Arizona, accusing him of performing more child-bride marriages. Prior to his capture, Jeffs was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
Contributing: Associated Press E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]