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THE NATION

Teen moms reported at sect's ranch

Texas officials also cite allegations of forced underage marriages. Church officials see religious persecution.

April 09, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Child welfare investigators who entered a polygamist compound in West Texas this weekend found many pregnant teenagers and underage girls who said they were forced to marry, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday.

The documents detailed the evidence that Texas officials presented to a judge to justify taking temporary state custody of more than 400 children from the YFZ Ranch, near the tiny town of Eldorado, built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The papers say that in responding to an initial report that a 16-year-old girl had been sexually abused at the ranch, a guarded complex with a towering limestone temple at its center, investigators found many young girls who either were pregnant or had given birth.

Lynn McFadden, an investigator with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, declared in an affidavit that it was "widespread pattern and practice" among young girls at the YFZ Ranch to enter into "spiritual marriages" arranged by the polygamist sect and to begin having sex with older men and giving birth as soon as they turned 13 or 14.

The men, she added, were "having sexual relationships with a number of women, some of whom are minors."

"A number of the children interviewed were unable or unwilling to provide the names of their biological parents or identified multiple mothers and were unable or unwilling to provide information such as their own birth dates," McFadden said in the affidavit, adding that adults also could not state the full names of many children.

Two surnames -- Jeffs and Jessop -- came up repeatedly in the court documents.

The FLDS, as the religious sect is known, broke away from the Mormon Church in the 1930s. Its self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old to marry and have sex with her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs, 52, is awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona.

Angry over Texas' decision to take temporary custody of so many children -- the total had reached 416, or all of the youngsters in the compound, by Tuesday -- church elders and their attorneys fired back at the state, claiming religious persecution.

"There needs to be a public outcry that goes far and wide," Merrill Jessop, who oversees the YFZ compound -- which stands for Yearning for Zion -- told the Salt Lake Tribune. "What's coming we don't know. The hauling off of women and children matches anything in Russia or Germany."

On behalf of Jessop and Isaac Jeffs, another church elder, attorneys filed motions accusing Texas of greatly overreaching in its searches to locate the 16-year-old girl who led child welfare workers to the compound.

The motions, which are to be heard today by a judge in Tom Green County, about 45 minutes north of the compound, allege that the search by local and state officials was unconstitutional and that any evidence seized as a result was illegal.

State prosecutors have filed motions in response saying that the search was legal.

The documents released Tuesday also list additional details about the allegations of the 16-year-old girl who launched the investigation into the polygamist compound.

Among other things, she said that she was beaten and forced to have sex with her "spiritual husband" and on one occasion suffered broken ribs.

The girl called a family violence center March 29 to report the abuse, but called back the following day and "began crying and then stated that she was happy and fine and does not want to get into trouble and everything she previously said should be forgotten."

The girl, who claimed she was forced to marry a man and have his child at age 15, has yet to be found. The man she alleged to be her polygamist husband, Dale Barlow, has claimed that he does not know her. He is reportedly in Arizona, where he is a registered sex offender on probation for an unrelated sex crime with a minor.

"We've finished the investigation at the compound at this point. We believe we have all the children," said Texas Child Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins, adding: "We are hopeful that the 16-year-old is one of those in custody."

Investigators also disclosed that they intended to seek permission to conduct DNA tests on certain men in the compound to determine whether they are the biological parents of any of the children.

--

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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