Late-Night Call Revealed Secret World

Washington Post/April 9, 2008

San Angelo, Texas - The cry for help came late at night - at 11:32 p.m. - and it came in a whisper.

Speaking in a low voice to avoid being overheard, the 16-year-old girl - mother of an 8-month-old baby and pregnant with a second child - sketched out chilling tales. She spoke of teenage girls, some as young as 13, being forced to have sex with older men for the purpose of bearing their children. She said she was the seventh "spiritual" wife of a 49-year-old man. She described beatings by him as so vicious that one time several of her ribs had been broken.

The March 29 phone call, and one the next day from the compound run by an insular and secretive splinter sect of the Mormon Church, prompted raids by authorities; they took 416 children into protective custody, the largest child removal in Texas history. The children, mostly girls, ranged in age from infants to 17. Several have babies or are pregnant.

The girl's harrowing tale and the subsequent investigation provided for the first time a glimpse of life inside the compound. It was an existence so removed from mainstream society that many female inhabitants did not know how to spell their last name and many children could not state their birth date.

The ranch was built outside of tiny West Texas town of Eldorado in 2004. It was just a few years after allegations against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as the sect is known, of child abuse, forced marriage and fraud in Utah and Arizona.

The sect broke away from the mainstream Mormon Church when it banned polygamy in 1890. It practices plural marriage, a spiritual ritual that is arranged by the group's prophet through what the church teaches are revelations from God. Members believe that having multiple wives gives them access to the highest level in heaven, the Celestial Kingdom.

In 2004, the sect claimed a membership of 10,000 to 12,000, most living in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. In an interview that year with The Washington Post, Rodney Parker, the lawyer who spoke for FLDS, and the sect's self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, said the group was looking for an "outpost and retreat" in Texas for 500 church members. They said the sect's members wanted "to concentrate and focus on their religious mission without the interferences and pressures they've been subjected to" in Arizona and Utah.

Now the compound, known as the Yearning for Zion Ranch and strictly off-limits to outsiders, is the focus of a major investigation and intense attention in Texas, too.

"We have now interviewed all the children, and that information shows us that we have more victims [than the 16-year-old complainant] who were abused or at risk of being abused," said Marleigh Meisner, a regional spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The teenager's calls went to a local family violence shelter, and workers there called a child abuse hotline run by Family and Protective Services. From that tip, investigators began looking into the case last week, and first sought entry into the compound on Thursday, said Darrell Azar, the state spokesman for Family and Protective Services. The first 18 children were removed Friday and the last 15 on Monday night.

They have all been taken to Fort Concho in San Angelo, where authorities are determining what to do with them.

"The information we have received from law enforcement indicates that all of the children have been safely removed from the ranch," Meisner said. An additional 139 women voluntarily accompanied the children, although they are free to go back to the compound, Azar said.

Law enforcement officials, including FBI agents, continued to search the 1,700-acre compound Tuesday evening.

Authorities say the girl who made the original calls has still not been accounted for.

According to an affidavit released Tuesday, the girl's "spiritual husband" beat her whenever he got angry. Sometimes the beatings included, "hitting her on the chest and choking her" while another woman in the compound held her infant child. The teenage mother received her last beating on Easter Sunday, then six days later made her first call to the shelter.

She said she wanted to leave the ranch, but had been told that life would be hard in the outside world. She told authorities that her parents did not live at the ranch, and she said she had no one to "explain that she does not want to continue to be on the ranch," the affidavit said.

After the first raid, Eldorado's First Baptist Church provided meals and its Fellowship Hall as a shelter for about 80 women and children. The women wore loose dresses in muted colors that covered their bodies. They huddled together, hardly speaking except to ask when they could "go home." One woman, interviewed by an agent from the state Child Protective Services, was asked how to spell her last name. "I don't know," she responded.

They asked for the same all-natural diet they ate on the compound - raw milk, yogurt, cheese, steamed vegetables, steamed oatmeal, honey, berries, nuts. The churches tried to accommodate them, offering grilled chicken, steamed vegetables and fruit.

By Saturday, the women and children had relaxed somewhat. Children began playing with toys that were brought to the church-turned-shelter.

"The sounds of glee, the shouts, the joy," said Helen Pfluger, a leader at the First Baptist Church. "From all the aerial photographs [of the compound] I've seen, I've never seen anything that would suggest playing for children. They were having an awesome time."

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