After FLDS Church leaders balked, local law-enforcement officials entered and searched the sect's temple late Saturday, looking for a 16-year-old girl who reported being abused.
Local newspapers in Eldorado, Texas, reported that law-enforcement personnel serving a search warrant on the YFZ polygamist ranch had entered the temple, which FLDS members consider sacred, and then moved on to the temple annex. There was no report of any violence, although FLDS Church leaders had initially refused to let police enter the temple. Ambulances were moved into the area near the West Texas ranch earlier in what authorities said was a precautionary move in case things took a turn for the worse.
Texas officials said Saturday that 183 individuals including 137 infants and children were removed from the ranch while they searched for a 16-year-old member who reported being abused.
Law enforcement is "preparing for the worst," said prosecutor Allison Palmer, noting that the 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.
Those removed from the compound were taken 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 caregivers 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 a case stemming from reports that involve a 50-year-old man and his alleged 16-year-old bride. Officials believe 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 officials 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 spokesman, 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 on its Web site Saturday that Barlow's Arizona probation officer says Barlow has regularly reported to him and that he 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-enforcement officials declined to comment Saturday, and the local sheriff did not return calls to the Deseret Morning News. 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 community of nearly 2,000 residents 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. Local media have estimated that the FLDS 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. Currently jailed in Kingman, Ariz., Jeffs faces multiple charges of sexual misconduct and incest in Arizona, which has accused him of performing more child-bride marriages. Prior to his capture, Jeffs was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
Contributing: Geoffrey Fattah, Deseret Morning News; Associated Press E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]