Austin, Texas - Child welfare officials were up against a culture of secrecy, unlimited resources and sect members schooled in the art of misleading authorities as they tried to build a case for removing hundreds of children from a west Texas polygamist enclave, religious experts and former adherents say.
Investigators say Thursday's Texas Supreme Court decision - that approximately 430 children removed from the Yearning For Zion ranch must be returned to their parents - shows how difficult it is to build a child-welfare case against a fundamentalist group.
The legal challenge has kindled debate over whether Texas authorities should deal with polygamist groups as Utah and Arizona have done: trying to win cooperation rather than raiding them and prosecuting members en masse.
"These are people who have been taught from the cradle that outsiders are bad, that government is evil, until they fear us more than they fear their abusers," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Added Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard: "Step by step, we've tried to make sure that people ... understood what the rules were, understood what we were going to prosecute and that we weren't going to condemn them just for their lifestyle."
Leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints deny misleading state officials. "The record's clearly going to show what the deceptions were and who lied to whom," said sect leader Willie Jessop, referring to state investigators.
In a filing to the Texas Supreme Court, lawyers for the Department of Family and Protective Services said collecting evidence was difficult. Girls routinely switched names and identified themselves as mothers of other women's children.
"Based on both the children's and women's repeated deceptions, lies and misinformation, the trial court had no reliable evidence" on the identities of the children or their parents, the state's attorneys wrote. The appellate court's ruling - upheld by the high court - centered on a general lack of evidence.
'You didn't think of it as lying'
That comes as no surprise to Mary Mackert, a former FLDS member who, as a child in a polygamous family, said she was taught that her behavior could determine whether her father ended up in jail.
Her mother, she said, rehearsed lies with her children: When her father spent the night at his other wives' houses? "Daddy's a traveling salesman." Why didn't the family attend the mainstream Mormon church? "Daddy's a Catholic."
By the time Mackert was married - at 17, to a 50-year-old - lying was second nature, she said. When her husband was in public with her, he would ask their children to "come to Grandpa."
"You didn't think of it as lying. It's your duty and your responsibility to protect those who are living the principle," Mackert said. "They're going to lie to protect their prophet and the head of their family."
Sam Brower, a Utah-based polygamist investigator, said the FLDS legal strategy is to outlast opponents - and that it has the money to do it, thanks to successful businesses it owns. He said the sect brought in virtually every high-powered attorney it ever has used to tackle the west Texas case.
Religious leaders also make investigators' work harder by shuttling people across state lines, Brower said.
When investigators get too close, he said, sect leaders order families to turn in their photo albums, birth certificates and other records to be hidden or destroyed. "It's like dealing with the mob, only worse," Brower said.
Jessop called such statements "outrageous and barbaric." He said investigators have never cared to hear sect members' side of the story, relying on rumors and former adherents with agendas.
"Everything's about sensation," he said. "There have been no boundaries." Government vs. the sects
For many sect members, the Yearning For Zion case brings up memories of the 1953 raids on Short Creek - a now-renamed town on the Utah-Arizona border where more than 300 FLDS women and children were sent into foster care.
After a public backlash that brought down an Arizona governor, families were eventually reunited.
More recently, officials in Utah and Arizona have emphasized selective prosecution for child and domestic abuse, not targeting polygamy or going after entire communities.
Both states created a safety committee made up of sect members, social workers and law enforcement officials, with monthly meetings that rotate among cities with significant polygamist populations.
"In the past, we were afraid to seek help and to go to the police because we were afraid that they would charge us," said Heidi Foster, a Salt Lake City mother of 12 who has been in a polygamous marriage and helps run a support group for fundamentalist Mormon women.
Texas' approach drives sect women "further underground," she said.
Jessop said it would be a long time until sect members trust the government.
"The belief of the people is that religion is not the problem; bias against religion is the problem," Jessop said. "It's a little bit like asking a Christian to give up Christianity to get their children back."