4 Apr 2008

Authorities remove children from polygamists' West Texas compound

El Paso Times - Texas

April 4, 2008

By MICHELLE ROBERTS / Associated Press Writer

ELDORADO, Texas -- Child welfare officials and state troopers on Friday removed a busload of children from a secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner confirmed the white bus that drove out of the compound accompanied by state troopers was filled with children being taken away from the compound, but could not immediately say how many.

The bus left the compound filled with what appeared to be mostly girls.

Authorities surrounded the retreat, built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, late Thursday and served search and arrest warrants Friday.

Meisner said the DPS and other law enforcement helped investigators gain access. She said CPS is "investigating whether any children are in danger."

Schleicher County Attorney Raymond Loomis Jr. said a girl apparently called authorities to complain, but he had no other details. The case was being handled by prosecutors in San Angelo, a bigger town north of this tiny community. The district attorney's office there declined comment.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said CPS was responding to a complaint but could provide no details. He wouldn't say how many people were being interviewed or how many officers were involved.

"The people inside are cooperating. They provided all the people we wanted to talk to," he said.

The ranch is north of this tiny community, down a narrow paved road. Authorities blocked access to the compound's gate, keeping people miles outside the area.

Only the compound's 80-foot-tall, gleaming white temple is visible on the wind-swept desert horizon, but Vinger said the ranch has numerous buildings. Local authorities in 2006 put the figure at about 150.

The retreat was built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The congregation, known as FLDS and led by the reclusive Jeffs since his father's death in 2002, 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 located 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.

Eldorado, a livestock and mohair center, is home to about 1,800 of the 2,800 residents of the Edwards Plateau County.

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