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Texas has its own view of polygamists

Times Staff Writers

After a polygamist sect took up residence outside this tiny ranch town a few years ago, the library stocked paperback, cassette and hardcover copies of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” an unsparing look at such groups that was suddenly in hot demand.

The local weekly newspaper devoted stories in nearly every edition to the outsiders. And it posted online audio clips of the sect’s self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs, ranting in a creepy monotone about the Beatles being covert agents of a “Negro race.”

The people of Eldorado (pronounced el-doh-RAY-do) took in the sect’s arrival with nervous anticipation -- because they understood that, unlike in Utah and Arizona, this would not last long in Texas.

Texas’ aggressive raid this month -- in which state investigators took custody of more than 400 children, disclosed evidence that men were marrying girls at puberty, and discovered beds allegedly used for sex acts inside a towering temple -- is the most decisive action against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in at least half a century.

Court papers released Friday showed that state investigators hauled off a cache of evidence from the polygamist compound that included marriage and birth records and what was cryptically described as a “cyanide poisoning document.”

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Texas’ raid contrasts sharply with the approaches of Arizona and Utah, which have looked the other way for decades while the FLDS put underage girls into “spiritual marriages.” The 10,000-member sect was founded in the 1930s by religious leaders who continued practicing polygamy after it was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890.

“God bless Texas,” said Flora Jessop, an activist who escaped the FLDS at age 16. “The state has done in days what Arizona and Utah failed to do in more than a century -- protect children.”

Authorities in the sect’s home states have recently taken more aggressive steps; Utah successfully prosecuted Jeffs last year for being an accomplice to rape after he arranged the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her cousin, and Jeffs awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges.

Utah and Arizona officials have long argued that polygamists are too entrenched in their states to simply stamp them out. In Utah, Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff’s office has prosecuted polygamists for child abuse. But it has never contemplated a full-scale raid like the one in Texas, spokesman Paul Murphy said.

“Our approach has been, if there is child abuse in one family, we will deal with that family,” Murphy said.

The office is trying to build trust in polygamist communities to report crimes such as underage marriage, Murphy added, but the Texas raids have sowed panic even in groups that practice polygamy only among consenting adults.

Texas Rangers stressed that they tried to respect the group’s religious privacy while searching for a 16-year-old girl who called a family shelter and claimed she was sexually abused by a man she was forced to marry at age 15. But after being refused a key to the compound’s imposing temple, Texas Rangers forced their way inside -- and even applied Jaws of Life rescue tools to its doors -- as 57 men from the sect cried and prayed.

The girl, who claimed she gave birth eight months ago and was pregnant once again, has yet to be found.

“You can worship what you want, think what you want. But if you act to abuse girls sexually in Texas, we are going to take action,” said Texas Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar.

The only FLDS event that compares to the Texas action is the dramatic 1953 raid by Arizona state police and the U.S. National Guard on the community of Short Creek. Authorities took about 400 residents -- the entire FLDS population at the time -- into custody and hauled away 236 children.

Emotional accounts of Short Creek children weeping while government agents stripped them from their mothers generated a backlash, and Arizona Gov. John Howard Pyle lost his job the next year, a lesson that influenced future Utah and Arizona politicians.

In Texas, however, the only criticism of the raid so far seems to be that it took too long to happen.

“It should have been taken care of a long time ago,” said Charmarie Swinford, 37, a waitress at the Hitch’n Post, an Eldorado restaurant that had one item on the lunch menu: hamburger. “I have a daughter who’s 14, and I just can’t . . . " she said, her voice trailing off.

Men from the sect first showed up in Eldorado, population 1,800, in 2003 and said they were looking for a hunting retreat.

But soon after the men starting building up an exotic game ranch on the outskirts of town, it became clear that this was no hunter’s lodge.

The YFZ Ranch, which stands for Yearning for Zion, became a bustling mini-city. Sect members built dormitories, a cheese factory, a medical clinic and a concrete plant. They gated off the entire 1,691-acre compound and put up surveillance towers that were sometimes guarded by armed men.

But the most striking feature was a white temple rising stories high into the West Texas sky, built with masterly precision from limestone quarried on-site.

Schleicher County’s justice of the peace began flying over the compound out of curiosity and spotted girls and women in long pioneer dresses seemingly out of the 19th century.

As residents read about the sect’s history of sexual abuse, and the reports of “lost boys” exiled as teenagers to reduce competition for wives, pressure mounted for Sheriff David Doran to bust up the YFZ Ranch.

Doran moved cautiously, developing a dialogue with sect elder Merrill Jessop while also cultivating a “confidential informant” who told him about life inside the compound. Meanwhile, a local legislator revised Texas’ marriage law in 2005 to increase the minimum age from 14 to 16, a measure clearly aimed at the sect.

Finally, on April 3, after receiving the 16-year-old girl’s cries for help, authorities descended on the ranch in force. They said their initial goal was to find the girl and her alleged abuser, Dale Barlow, 50, who she claimed had recently beaten her so badly that she suffered broken ribs.

But once inside, Texas Rangers and child welfare officials said they came upon evidence of abuse too widespread to ignore.

According to an affidavit, investigators soon saw numerous underage girls who were pregnant, and interviewed others who told of entering into polygamist marriages as soon as they reached child-bearing age.

Another affidavit from a Texas Ranger described entering the temple and finding beds on a top floor, including one that had what looked to be a long strand of a female’s hair. Doran’s informant had told him that the beds were used by men to have sex with their child brides.

Texas seized control of all 416 children on the ranch, arguing that none were safe in a communal climate where abuse seemed to be a part of everyday life.

As of Friday, most of the children were in limbo at Ft. Concho, an old Indian-fighting encampment and historic landmark in San Angelo, running and playing in their antiquated clothes.

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miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

History of polygamist sect

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a rogue offshoot of the Mormon Church, which has disavowed the sect. Polygamy is a central FLDS tenet, and FLDS followers believe the Mormon Church was wrong to have banned it in 1890. Here’s a brief history of the group and recent events involving its leader, Warren Jeffs, who is imprisoned:

1930s: The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints breaks from the Mormon Church.

2002: Sect leader Rulon Jeffs dies and his son Warren becomes prophet, or leader, of the FLDS.

2003: Warren Jeffs starts banishing “unworthy” men and boys from the church. He reassigns wives and children to new husbands and fathers.

2005: Jeffs goes into hiding after felony criminal charges are filed against him in Arizona for the alleged arrangement of marriages between underage girls and adult men.

2006: In April, felony criminal charges are filed against Jeffs in Utah, accusing him of rape by accomplice in arranging a 2001 marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

2007: Jeffs is convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison.

March 29-31, 2008: A 16-year-old girl calls a domestic violence shelter and reports that she lives at the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch, an FLDS compound near Eldorado, Texas, and that she has been sexually and physically abused by her 49-year-old husband.

April 3: Texas police enter the YFZ compound and begin interviewing residents.

April 4: Police begin removing children from the compound; eventually, 416 children are removed and placed in state custody.

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Sources: Associated Press, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Times reporting


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