9 Apr 2008

Papers detail alleged abuse at sect's compound

USA Today - April 9, 2008

by William M. Welch

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Girls as young as 13 were forced into "spiritual marriages" with men and subjected to sexual and physical abuse at a West Texas polygamist community, state investigators alleged in court documents released Tuesday.

The court papers brought forward lurid details of what allegedly was happening in Eldorado, Texas. Investigators say it was hard to determine who were the biological parents of children in a society where men had multiple wives going back generations.

Texas officials stated in the documents that 416 children taken from the polygamist sect were in "immediate danger" and "are the victims of neglect and/or sexual abuse."

More than 700 child welfare and law enforcement officials were involved in the operation, according to an affidavit filed at the courthouse in San Angelo in support of a state intervention to take custody of the children.

The children were living at Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, a gated compound outside tiny Eldorado. The compound was built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that broke away from the mainstream Mormon Church after it banned polygamy.

The church's leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to the rape of a teen forced to marry her cousin. Jeffs faces additional charges in Arizona.

Locals in Eldorado say townsfolk did not know much about the 1,700-acre compound.

"They're just there," said Buddy Arspie, 19, a construction worker who lives off the road that leads to the compound. "They're private."

Gabriella Moreno, 53, a home health worker, said everyone in town knew the compound was for polygamists.

"I say if they don't bother me I don't bother them," she said from her neighborhood of trailers, modest homes and boarded-up shacks.

Texas investigators said they had not yet identified the 16-year-old girl whose late-night phone call to a shelter March 29 and again a day later alleging abuse triggered the massive raid Thursday by law enforcement and child welfare officials, the affidavit said.

Some lawyers questioned the propriety of a raid based on an anonymous accusation.

"To rip up hundreds of parents and children and put them in a makeshift prison while you investigate to see if they did anything wrong is un-American," said Dick DeGuerin, a lawyer who negotiated with federal authorities on behalf of David Koresh during the 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas. "It's against every tenet of due process and violates both the U.S. and Texas constitutions."

In the civil court filing, an investigator recounted details of that call and said the woman reported being forced into "spiritual marriage" at age 15 with a 49-year-old male with multiple wives, has an 8-month-old child and was again pregnant. It said she reported being held against her will and had required hospitalization in the past for beatings.

"There is a pervasive pattern and practice of indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriages to adult male members of the YFZ Ranch resulting in them being sexually abused," Lynn McFadden, investigative supervisor for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an affidavit supporting the state's move to protect the children.

John Llewellyn, a former polygamist from Utah who helped prosecute polygamists as a lieutenant in the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department, said young girls are taught to be completely subservient to their husbands and are indoctrinated with such a fear of the outside world that they rarely try to escape. So on occasions when they leave the compound, Llewellyn said there is little concern that they will flee.

"They're kept in isolation from mainstream society so priests can control information," he said. "Once they believe that the outside world is their enemy, that the outside world will prey upon them, then you can release most of them and they'll come back."

On Tuesday, the children who had been seized from the compound were being kept on the grounds of historic Fort Concho in the center of this small city on the West Texas plains and in another building, said Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said.

In addition, 139 adults, many of them mothers and grandmothers, have chosen to remain with the children in state custody, she said. The women are free to leave if they wish but none have, Meisner said.

She said relationships have been difficult to determine. Children have struggled to identify their parents, sometimes identifying multiple mothers. Adults have provided little information.

Two men have been charged in the raids. Leroy Johnson Steed, 41, was arrested Monday on charges of felony tampering with evidence. Levi Barlow Jeffs, 19, was arrested on a charge of interfering with the duties of a public servant, said Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger.

Contributing: Alan Gomez in McLean, Va.; Associated Press

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