Nearly 200 moved from polygamist retreat
Sunday, April 6, 2008
ELDORADO, Texas -- Child welfare officials have now removed nearly 200 women and children from a secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, authorities said Saturday.
The investigation began after a 16-year-old living there complained of physical abuse. A search warrant authorized state troopers to enter the retreat run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and look for evidence of a marriage between the girl and a 50-year-old man.
The warrant said the girl had a baby eight months ago, when she was 15.
State Child Protective Services on Friday removed 52 girls from the compound. Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the agency, said that another 131 residents were removed overnight and that by Saturday afternoon 137 children and 46 women were being housed and interviewed.
"They seem to be doing fine," Meisner said. Four investigators remained inside the polygamist compound looking for additional children.
The whereabouts of the mother who sparked the investigation are unknown, Meisner said.
State troopers who raided the religious retreat were looking for the girl, her baby girl and 50-year-old Dale Barlow. Under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.
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.
Those inside the retreat did not respond to requests for comment.
State law enforcers declined to comment Saturday, saying a judge had issued a gag order, and the local sheriff did not return calls.
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 view in town. 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 is a two-stoplight town of fewer than 2,000 people nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. It consists of a cluster of government buildings, a couple of 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 group, known by the acronym FLDS, has been led by 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 older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial.
The San Angelo Standard-Times reported that children were being kept at a community center and a Baptist church in Eldorado.
The owner of the Sutton County Steak House in nearby Sonora 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 heartbreaking," Love said.