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Texas has its own view of polygamists

Unlike Arizona and Utah, it closed a compound forcibly.

April 12, 2008|Miguel Bustillo and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

ELDORADO, TEXAS — 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."

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.

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