ELDORADO, Texas The wind whipped across the prairie as Fundamentalist LDS Church member Willie Jessop stood at the gate, facing off against child welfare workers who were seeking to be let onto the sprawling YFZ Ranch.
Texas officials wanted to search the ranch for more children believed to be on the polygamous sect's property in the aftermath of a raid that resulted in more than 450 children in state protective custody. The FLDS denied them access to the ranch without a search warrant.
"The people they are looking for, I cannot produce because they don't exist," Jessop said Wednesday. "They assured me that they do exist. If they bring in their heavy law enforcement and raid us again, there's nothing I can do to stop it."
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said it had information that there were more children at the ranch, despite a judge's order that removed all of the children."We're going to check it out and see. That's all we can do at this point," said Texas CPS spokeswoman Shari Pulliam.
Jessop and other FLDS men bolted from the courthouse in San Angelo 45 miles away when they received word that CPS workers had showed up at the ranch gate. The men were in court for another day of status hearings to determine whether the hundreds of children taken from the ranch will eventually be returned to their parents.
When CPS workers walked up to the gate, they were turned away.
"They said they were just looking for more children is all," said FLDS member Guy Jessop, who was standing inside the gate. "I told them there was none here."
Without a search warrant, they were turned away.
"If they get a warrant, we'll look at what it says and what it's about," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS Church.
Willie Jessop said he met with CPS workers and Schleicher County sheriff's deputies in Eldorado, who told him they were looking for as many as five children, ages 15 and younger. An eyewitness, CPS workers claimed, put them on the ranch.
"I asked them if they got their information from the same source as the last one," Jessop said, referring to the call that sparked the April 3 raid, now under investigation by Texas authorities as a possible hoax. "They assured me that was not their source. Our skepticism is, it probably was."
CPS officials claim Jessop invited them to the ranch later in the afternoon, but when they arrived about 6 p.m., they were denied entry again. Two CPS workers and a law enforcement officer stood at the gate and spoke with Jessop. The police officer was seen wagging her finger emphatically at Jessop, who appeared visibly upset.
About 20 minutes later, the workers left.
Texas child welfare authorities were huddling late Wednesday to decide what avenues to pursue. Because they are a civil agency, officials noted they may not need a warrant to conduct a civil investigation. Asked if they plan to return and force their way onto the property, CPS couldn't say.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said the agency's Marissa Gonzoles. "Every day is a new day."
Jessop said that if there is a good faith effort of a complaint, the FLDS would cooperate, but they already feel betrayed by what he said were lies by the state."If they have legitimate allegations, a legitimate concern and be specific about it so we can help them deal with it, we'd be glad to," he said. "But they won't do that."
Onto the ranch
Jessop believes law enforcement and CPS will return to the ranch. He said initial plans to raid the ranch were scrubbed because the news media was outside.
Jessop said everyone had already been taken. If there were any children on the ranch, they belonged to sect members from out of state who came here to help in the massive child custody case.
To prove his point, the FLDS opened up the YFZ Ranch to a Deseret News reporter and other journalists gathered outside and led a brief tour of the property.
Jessop walked into the schoolhouse, which would typically have been filled with children. It was eerily empty. Some of the children's work was still on the walls. The calendars were still on the month of April.
In one room that also serves as a meeting hall for church services, a large portrait of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs looked out over the empty chairs.
Jessop defended his religious leader, who is in jail on charges of rape as an accomplice, having been convicted in Utah of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
Recently, child advocates have confiscated copies of the Book of Mormon from children in foster care and demanded that they not be exposed to Jeffs' sermons. Jessop said they would remove the pictures if it meant bringing the children home, but they would not renounce their faith.
"It's what the state is trying to force us to do," he said. "It will never happen. You can't call yourself a Mormon and renounce Joseph Smith any more than you can call yourself FLDS and renounce the prophet, Uncle Warren."
Only a handful of people were seen on the 1,700-acre ranch. A woman in a blue dress looked out the second-floor window of a home. A dairy was sparsely tended to. The rock quarry, a sewage treatment facility and the fields were empty. The once-pristine green lawn of the FLDS Church's first-ever temple is turning brown.
"I don't really see a whole lot of people anymore," said a man named Al, who lives on the ranch. "CPS told 'em if you ever return to the ranch, you'll never get your kids back."
The attack on their way of life has brought about some new activism by the FLDS. Jessop said they requested about 600 voter registration cards from Schleicher County. The group has been criticized for its isolation.
"That's the one thing I think we have to take some responsibility," he said.
Among those touring the sprawling ranch was Jim Beck, who owns the ranch next door. When he heard that the ranch had been opened, he followed reporters inside. Beck has watched it being built for years from afar."I just wanted to see it," he said outside the temple grounds. "It's impressive. It's amazing."
Meanwhile, hearings that will help determine the status of the 450-plus children in foster care resume today in San Angelo.
Throughout the hearings, it has become evident that many FLDS members have left the ranch and moved to other parts of Texas to be near their children. Some women are securing jobs.
Sarah Draper, another mother, said she had gotten a job at a hospital in Abilene. Adeline Barlow had gotten a job in San Antonio to be near her two children.
Barlow's husband, Leroy Steed Jeffs, 55, did not appear in court Wednesday. When reached by phone in Hildale, he told CPS caseworker Ashley Kennedy that he had seen the family service plan, which offers recommendations on what it will take for unifying parents with their children, and that "at this time he was not interested" in participating, she said on the witness stand.
Draper's former husband, excommunicated FLDS member Dan Barlow, appeared in court to object to his plan. He has not been in the church for several years and wondered why he should be subjected to its restrictions when he hasn't seen his children in a long time.
Five judges have been simultaneously holding hearings for the children. The hearings have produced many surprises.
The number of so-called "disputed minors" is dwindling. At least eight young women have now been deemed to be adults.
A lawyer for a 14-year-old girl on the list said she is not pregnant, as the Texas DFPS had originally claimed.
"My client does not have children, is not pregnant. She's the youngest on the list of disputed minors," Andrea Sloan said in court.
The judge hearing the case objected, saying it was not relevant to the status hearing. Sloan pressed forward.
"The department is communicating to the public that there are 14-year-olds who are pregnant," she said.
In the hearing, lawyers for the parents and the children attacked the family service plans again for being overly broad. Officials allege that there was a pattern of abuse on the YFZ Ranch, with girls being groomed to become child brides and boys growing up to be sexual predators.
Lawyers complain the family service plans are identical, making the same allegations and recommendations for reunification for every parent.
CPS caseworkers say the plans will become more individualized as the marathon custody cases move forward. A task force has apparently been created to come up with service providers who are culturally sensitive to the unique beliefs, language and issues surrounding the FLDS faith.
"Does this plan involve only former members?" lawyer Jennifer O'Dwyer asked CPS caseworker Ashley Kennedy."Both former and current," she replied.