Busload Of Girls Leaves Polygamist Ranch

Officials escort two buses, April 4, 2008 from the retreat built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, located near El Dorado, Texas. Child welfare officials and state troopers removed at least one busload of children from the secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs following a complaint to state authorities. AP Photo/Harry Cabluck

Child welfare officials following up on an abuse complaint took custody of 18 girls Friday who lived at a secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

A total of 52 girls, ages 6 months to 17 years, were bused away on Friday to be interviewed, but only 18 were immediately taken into state custody, said Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner. No arrests had been made.

Meisner said welfare officials were looking for foster homes for the girls, most of whom have rarely been outside the insular world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were being housed for now at a civic center, she said.

"We're dealing with children that aren't accustomed to the outside world, so we're trying to be very sensitive to their needs," Meisner said.

Authorities had interviewed about half the girls since arriving Thursday evening at the remote compound with law enforcers, she said. Interviews were expected to continue over the weekend.

The investigation began with a call alleging physical abuse of a 16-year-old girl living there, Meisner said.

On Friday afternoon, the Department of Public Safety officials began executing a search warrant.

The warrant seeks records dealing with the birth of children to a 16-year-old and any records listing a marriage between a 50-year-old man and the girl, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times, which cited court records released late Friday in Tom Green County. Prosecutors in Tom Green, a larger county north of Eldorado, were handling the case.

An arrest warrant was issued, but the individual that public safety officials are looking for had not been located Friday evening, said spokeswoman Tela Mange. She said she could not reveal whose name was on the warrant.

"We have been working very closely with the adults at the ranch, and they have been assisting us in our search," she said.

The ranch covers roughly 1,700 acres. It is north of this two stoplight town, down a narrow paved road. Authorities blocked access to the compound's gate, keeping onlookers miles away.

Only the compound's 80-foot-tall, gleaming white temple is visible on the wind-swept desert horizon.

State officials said they did not know how many people lived at the retreat, but local officials in 2006 put the number at about 150, as members of the reclusive church moved from a community on the Arizona-Utah line.

The congregation, known as FLDS, and has been led by Jeffs since his father's death in 2002. It is one of several groups that split from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890.

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 their older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial.

The group's retreat, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio, is on a former exotic game ranch. The group bought the property in 2004 for $700,000 and began an ambitious construction program anchored by the temple.
  • CBSNews

Comments