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Investigation of sect continues in Texas

The state is looking into allegations of sexual abuse. Children have been returned to the polygamist group.

June 05, 2008|From the Associated Press

SAN ANGELO, TEXAS — The polygamist sect raided by authorities two months ago has its children back. But with a criminal investigation underway into allegations of sexual abuse, the splinter group's troubles are not over.

Child-welfare officials have alleged that members of the sect pushed underage girls into marriages with older men. Although the last of 440 children seized from the sect's ranch were returned to their parents Wednesday, prosecutors could still bring criminal charges.

"There have been criminal problems located out there," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who was with state troopers and child-welfare authorities April 3 when they raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch in western Texas.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and the attorney general's office have taken over the criminal investigation at the request of authorities in the rural ranching community.

Obtaining the DNA evidence and the testimony necessary to prove such a case could prove difficult.

DNA evidence acquired in the custody case is off-limits to criminal investigators unless child-welfare investigators find wrongdoing or law enforcement gets court permission, and a prosecution probably would go nowhere without at least one willing witness in the insular ranch community. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had a strong distrust of outsiders even before all of the children at the ranch were taken away.

Child-welfare officials had said that 31 teenage girls at the ranch were pregnant or had had children, but nearly all of the mothers turned out to be adults. Under Texas law, girls younger than 17 generally cannot consent to sex with an adult.

Children from the ranch were allowed to leave foster care after a judge bowed to a Texas Supreme Court ruling last week that the state had overreached.

Late Wednesday, an Arizona judge dismissed four incest charges against Warren Jeffs, the jailed prophet of the FLDS church, but let stand the remaining four charges of sexual conduct with a minor. If convicted, Jeffs could face probation to as much as eight years in prison.

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