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 2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch

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PostSubject: 2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch   Wed Apr 09, 2008 1:31 am

2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch
By MICHELLE ROBERTS

ELDORADO, Texas (AP) Until the raid on their compound last week, the women and girls of the Yearning for Zion Ranch spent their days caring for its many children, tilling gardens and quilting, dressed in pioneer-style dresses sewn by their own hands.

But it was no idyllic recreation of 19th-century prairie life, authorities say. Since last week, they have interviewed members of the polygamist sect looking for evidence that that girls younger than 16 were forced into marriages with older men.

Five miles off the highway, beyond a double gate, the group's members live lives that are isolated even for the scruffy West Texas prairie. Their 1,700-acre ranch is like its own city, with a gleaming temple, doctor's office, school and even factories.

"Once you go into the compound, you don't ever leave it," said Carolyn Jessop, who was one of the wives of the alleged leader of the Eldorado complex, but who left the sect before it began moving to Texas in 2004.

State authorities had taken legal custody of 401 children, saying they had been harmed or were in imminent danger of harm. Officials continued searching the compound on Tuesday.

The raid on the compound founded by jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs started with a call from a 16-year-old who alleged abuse.

Authorities were looking for evidence that the girl, who allegedly gave birth at 15, was married to a 50-year-old, and for records related to other mothers aged 17 and younger. Even with their parents' permission, Texas law forbids girls younger than 16 to marry.

Some 133 women left the ranch voluntarily with the children and were being housed at a historic fort here while authorities conduct interviews. Dressed in ankle-length dresses with their hair pinned up in braids, the women milled about Monday as the children played on the fort's old parade grounds.

By Tuesday, two people had been arrested in connection with the investigation. Leroy Johnson Steed was arrested Monday night and is charged with tampering with physical evidence, a third-degree felony. Levi Barlow Jeffs, who was arrested Sunday, is charged with interfering with duties of a public servant, a misdemeanor.

Merrill Jessop, who oversees the ranch and is a presiding elder in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, told the Salt Lake Tribune that officers conducting the search were collecting cell phones "as fast as they can find them." He said the men were becoming worried about their wives and children because they have no Internet or television access.

"There needs to be a public outcry that goes far and wide," he said. "What's coming we don't know. The hauling off of women and children matches anything in Russia or Germany."

State troopers were holding an unknown number of men in the compound until investigators finished executing a house-to-house search of the ranch, which includes a cheese-making plant, a cement plant and several large housing units. They initially had difficulty getting access to the 80-foot white limestone temple that rises out of the brown scrub, but were searching it Monday.

Carolyn Jessop, author of the polygamy memoir "Escape," said the women dedicated so much time to raising children and their chores because the community emphasized self-sufficiency: Members believe the apocalypse is near, and they will have to start over when the world is destroyed.

They were not allowed to wear red the color Jeffs said belonged to Jesus and were not allowed to cut their hair.

They "were born into this," said Carolyn Jessop, 40. "They have no concept of mainstream society, and their mothers were born into and have no concept of mainstream culture. Their grandmothers were born into it."

Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said each child will get an advocate and an attorney. But she said they would have a tough time adjusting to modern life if they are permanently separated from their families.

Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said the criminal investigation was still under way, and that charges would be filed if investigators determined children were abused.

Still uncertain is the location of the girl whose call initiated the raid. Authorities were looking for documents, family photos or even a family Bible with lists of marriages and children to determine whether the girl was married to convicted sex offender Dale Barlow.

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

Authorities hoped to determine whether the teenager was among the church members being interviewed at Fort Concho, a 150-year-old fort built to protect frontier settlements.

Attorneys for the church and church leaders filed motions asking a judge to quash the search on constitutional grounds, saying state authorities didn't have enough evidence and that the warrants were too broad. A hearing on their motion was scheduled for Wednesday in San Angelo.

"The chief concern for everyone at this point is the welfare of the women and children," said FLDS attorneys Patrick Peranteau. He declined further comment before Wednesday's hearing.

State troopers arrested one man on a misdemeanor charge of interfering with the duties of a public servant during the search warrant, Mange said.

"For the most part, residents at the ranch have been cooperative. However, because of some of the diplomatic efforts in regards to the residents, the process of serving the search warrants is taking longer than usual," said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.

Attorneys for the church and church leaders said Barlow was in Colorado City, Ariz., and had been in contact with law enforcement officials there. Telephone messages left by The Associated Press for Colorado City authorities were not immediately returned Monday.

The FLDS church, headed by Jeffs after his father's death in 2002, broke away from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.

The group is concentrated along the Arizona-Utah line but several enclaves have been built elsewhere, including in Texas. In 2003, the church paid $700,000 for the Eldorado property, a former exotic animal ranch, and began building the compound as authorities in Arizona and Utah began increasingly scrutinizing the group.

Only the 80-foot-high white temple can be seen from Eldorado, a town of fewer than 2,000 surrounded by sheep ranches nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Jeffs is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., where he awaits trial for four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives.

In November, he 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.

The investigation prompted by the girl's call last week was the first in Texas involving the sect.

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PostSubject: Re: 2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch   Wed Apr 09, 2008 1:32 am

Okay, so they weren't arrested for anything big, but 400 children have been taken into custody.

... why's it always Texas though? Polygamy isn't a big deal in my view, but statutory rape is huge.

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PostSubject: Re: 2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch   Wed Apr 09, 2008 11:40 am

Polygamy is weird to me, but if that's what they believe in, whatever. It's no big deal - so long as the wives all consent to it and they're not forced into it during puberty! Awful.

I watch Big Love. I love it. If the compound is anything like it's portrayed on the show it looks horrendous. And I'm sure it's 90 times worse. Of course, all polygamists aren't as sweet as the main family I'm sure.

This whole abuse thing disgusts me.
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PostSubject: Re: 2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch   Thu Apr 10, 2008 12:49 am

Documents: Sect teens made to have sex
By MICHELLE ROBERTS, Associated Press Writer

SAN ANGELO, Texas - Young teenage girls at a polygamist compound in West Texas were required to have sex in a soaring white temple after they were married in sect-recognized unions, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.

The temple "contains an area where there is a bed where males over the age of 17 engage in sexual activity with female children under the age of 17," said an affidavit quoting a confidential informant who left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Agents found a bed in the temple with disturbed linens and what appeared to be a female hair, said the affidavit signed by Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long. The Rangers are the state's investigative law enforcement arm.

The temple also contained multiple locked safes, vaults and desk drawers that authorities sought access to as they searched for records showing alleged marriages of underage girls as young as 12 or 13 to older men and births among the teens. The affidavit unsealed Wednesday mentions a 16-year-old girl who has four children.

Texas law prohibits polygamy and the marriage of girls under 16.

Also Wednesday, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers completed a weeklong search of the 1,700-acre grounds, said spokeswoman Tela Mange.

Lawyers for the sect had wanted to cut off the wide-ranging search as it dragged on but agreed in court Wednesday to the appointment of a special master who will vet what is expected to be hundreds of boxes of records, computers and even family Bibles for records that should not become evidence for legal or religious reasons.

Gerry Goldstein, a San Antonio lawyer flanked by nine other attorneys the church hired, said the search of the temple is analogous to a law enforcement search of the Vatican or other holy places. The church lawyers described in documents three men being dragged from the temple as law enforcement sought entry for the search.

Troopers also arrested two men over the week and charged them with interfering with the search.

Prosecutor Allison Palmer argued the search was to uncover any evidence of criminal activity, not to malign a religion.

The search of the compound in Eldorado, 40 miles south of San Angelo, began last Thursday after a 16-year-old girl called a local family violence shelter to report her 50-year-old husband beat and raped her. The search warrant covered all documents related to marriages among sect members, including photos and entries possibly written in family Bibles.

Since then, the state has taken legal custody of 416 children, who are being housed at two sites in San Angelo, about 200 miles west of San Antonio. Another 139 women voluntarily left the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints known as the YFZ Ranch and were being housed with the children.

Goldstein said a federal search warrant was issued as well as the state warrants.

Outside court, Goldstein declined to comment on the allegations against the church.

Court documents said a number of teen girls at the compound were pregnant, and all the children were removed on the grounds that they were in danger of "emotional, physical, and-or sexual abuse."

On Wednesday, state officials said the women and children were in good overall health but would not comment on pregnancies. About a dozen children appear to have chicken pox but were being separated at the evacuation sites, which include an old historic fort and a convention center here, said Child Protective Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen.

Authorities were trying to determine the identities and parentage of many of the children; some were unwilling or unable to provide the names of their biological parents or identified multiple mothers.

Officials still aren't sure where the 16-year-old girl is who made the initial call, and she is not named among the children in initial custody petitions by the state.

Texas has an outstanding arrest warrant for the man alleged to have been the girl's husband, Dale Barlow, 50. He's a registered sex offender who pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor in Mohave County, Ariz., last year.

An unknown number of men and women stayed at the ranch while authorities completed the search of the gleaming 80-foot-high temple, a cheese-making plant, a cement plant, a school, a doctor's office and housing units.

The Texas investigation is the state's first of FLDS members, but prosecutors in Utah and Arizona have pursued several church members in recent years, including sect leader Warren Jeffs. He is serving two consecutive sentences of five years to life for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old wed to her cousin in Utah. He awaits trial on other charges in Arizona.

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PostSubject: Re: 2 Arrested in Probe of Polygamist Ranch   Fri Apr 18, 2008 2:52 am

Polygamous-sect hearing in Texas descends into farce
By MICHELLE ROBERTS, Associated Press Writer

SAN ANGELO, Texas - A court hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children swept up in a raid on a West Texas polygamous sect descended into farce Thursday, with hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouting objections and the judge struggling to maintain order.

The case clearly one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history presented an extraordinary spectacle: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.

At issue was an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes because of evidence they were being physically and sexually abused or in imminent danger of abuse by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group suspected of forcing underage girls into marriage with older men.

As many feared, the proceedings turned into something of a circus and a painfully slow one.

By evening, only three witnesses had testified, including state child welfare investigator Angie Voss, who said women may have had children when they were minors, some as young as age 13.

At least five girls who are younger than 18 are now pregnant or have children, Voss said.

No decisions had been made on the fate of any of the youngsters, and the hearing was to continue Friday.

Additional details on life at the ranch began to emerge as Voss testified.

She said that if one of the men fell out of favor with the FLDS, his wives and children would be reassigned to other men. The children would then identify the new man as their father. Voss said that contributed to the problem of identifying children's family links and their ages.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther struggled to keep order as she faced 100 lawyers in her 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and several hundred more participating over a grainy video feed from an ornate City Hall auditorium two blocks away.

The hearing disintegrated quickly into a barrage of shouted objections and attempts to file motions, with lawyers for the children objecting to objections made by the parents' attorneys. When the judge sustained an objection to the prolonged questioning of the state trooper, the lawyers cheered.

Upon another objection about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands.

"I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, `Yes, Judge'?" she said.

In both buildings, the hundreds of lawyers stood and responded in unison: "Yes, Judge."

But she added to the chaos as well.

Walther refused to put medical records and other evidence in electronic form, which could be e-mailed among the lawyers, because it contained personal information. A courier had to run from the courthouse to the auditorium delivering one document at a time.

"We're going to handle this the best we can, one client at a time," Walther said.

Little evidence had been admitted; the first attempt resulted in an hourlong recess while all the lawyers examined it. The rest of the morning was spent in arguments about whether to admit the medical records of three girls, two 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old.

Department of Public Safety Sgt. Danny Crawford testified to DPS's discovery of a church bishop's records taken from a safe at the ranch that listed about 38 families, some of them polygamous and some that included wives 16 or 17 years old. But under repeated cross-examination, Crawford acknowledged the records contained no evidence of sexual abuse.

The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line. Its prophet and spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for forcing an underage girl into marriage in Utah.

Voss testified that through their interviews with girls at the ranch, investigators believed there was a pattern of underage girls given in marriage to older men.

Voss said that if the prophet told the girl to marry or to lie the girl would do as instructed.

"If the prophet told her to lie she would because the prophet received all his messages from the Heavenly Father," Voss said.

State officials asked the judge for permission to conduct genetic testing on the children and adults because of difficulty sorting out the sect's tangled family relationships and matching youngsters with their parents. The judge did not immediately rule.

Amid the shouting and chaos among the lawyers, who came from around Texas to represent the children and parents free of charge, dozens of mothers sat timidly in their long cotton dresses, long underwear even in the spring heat, and braided upswept hair.

In the satellite courtroom, hundreds of people strained to see and hear a large projector set up on the auditorium's stage. But the feed was blurry and barely audible.

"I'm not in a position to advocate for anything," complained Susan Hays, the appointed attorney for a 2-year-old sect member.

Outside, where TV satellite trucks lined the street in front of the courthouse's columned facade, a man who said he was an FLDS father waved a photo of himself surrounded by his five children, ranging from a baby to a child of about 9.

"Look, look, look," the father said. "These children are all smiling, we're happy."

Walther signed an emergency order nearly two weeks ago giving the state custody of the children after a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hot line claiming her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. The girl has yet to be identified.

Authorities raided their compound April 3 in the nearby town of Eldorado a 1,700-acre ranch with a blindingly white limestone temple and log cabin-style houses and began collecting documents and disk drives that might provide evidence of underage girls being married to adults.

The children, who are being kept in a domed coliseum in San Angelo, range in age from 6 months to 17 years. Roughly 100 of them are under 4.

FLDS members deny children were abused and say the state is persecuting them for their faith.

The judge must weigh the allegations of abuse and also decide whether it is in the children's best interest to be placed into mainstream society after they have been told all their lives that the outside world is hostile and immoral.

If the judge gives the state permanent custody of the children, the Texas child services agency will face the enormous task of finding suitable homes. It will also have to decipher brother-sister relationships so that it can try to preserve them.

Over the past two weeks, the agency has relied on volunteers to help feed the children, do their laundry and provide crafts and games for them.

Gov. Rick Perry would not say how much the case is costing the state, but said: "Does the state of Texas have the resources? Absolutely we do."

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