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Conflict escalates at polygamist compound

Sunday, April 6, 2008

ELDORADO, Texas -- Sect leaders at a polygamist compound in West Texas refused Saturday to let authorities search a temple for a teenage girl whose report of abuse led to the raid, and authorities said they were preparing "for the worst."

If no agreement is reached with sect leaders, authorities will forcibly remove the sect's followers "as peaceably as possible," Allison Palmer, a prosecutor in Tom Green County, told the San Angelo Standard-Times.

Medical workers are being sent "in case this were to a go in a way that no one wants," Palmer said. Law enforcers are "preparing for the worst," she said.

"Within the religion that we have encountered, their place of worship is very special to them," Palmer said. "It appears to be of great concern to them if a person from outside their congregation even attempts to step inside their place of worship."

A search warrant authorized troopers to enter the retreat, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are looking for evidence of a marriage between the girl and a 50-year-old man.

Court documents the girl had a baby eight months ago, when she was 15.

State welfare officials removed 52 girls from the compound Friday. Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said another 131 residents were removed overnight. By Saturday afternoon, 137 children and 46 women were being housed and interviewed at local community centers.

"They seem to be doing fine," Meisner said. Investigators remained inside the compound looking for additional children, she said.

The whereabouts of the 16-year-old mother who sparked the investigation are unknown, Meisner said. State troopers who raided the religious retreat were looking for the girl, her daughter and 50-year-old Dale Barlow.

Under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.

Officials in Texas declined to comment Saturday on whether they had found Barlow, citing a gag order, but the man's probation officer told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in Arizona.

"He said the authorities had called him [in Colorado City, Ariz.] and some girl had accused him of assaulting her and he didn't even know who she was," said Bill Loader, a probation officer in Arizona.

Barlow was sentenced to jail time last year after pleading no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. He was also ordered to register as a sex offender for three years while he is on probation.

His lawyer in that case, Bruce Griffen, said he had not spoken to Barlow in a year.

The search warrant instructed officers to look for marriage records or other evidence linking her to the man and the baby. The warrant authorized the seizure of computer drives, CDs, DVDs or photos.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke away from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.

The compound sits down a narrow paved road and behind a hill that shields it almost entirely from the town's view. Only the 80-foot-high, gleaming white temple can be seen on the horizon. Authorities blocked access to the gate, keeping onlookers miles away.

The 1,700-acre property had been an exotic game ranch. It is surrounded by dusty, wind-swept land where sheep are raised and mohair produced.

Eldorado (pronounced el-dor-AY'-do) is a two-stoplight town of fewer than 2,000 people and located nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. It consists of a cluster of government buildings, a couple churches and a few blocks of houses.

State officials said they did not know how many people lived at the retreat, although local officials estimated about 150 two years ago.

The FLDS has been led by Warren Jeffs since his father died in 2002. In November, Jeffs was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life 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.

In Arizona, Jeffs is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial.


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