Sheriff: Informant in polygamist compound

April 11, 2008 6:13:32 AM PDT
The Texas sheriff who raided a secretive polygamist compound on suspicions that young girls were sexually abused as child brides said today that he has had an informant inside the cult for the last four years. IMAGES: See photos from this story

"I have had a good informant who has given me good information over the past four years," Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran during a news conference today. "This person has beeen assisting us as we've gone forward on this operation."

That immediately raised questions, however, about why the sheriff waited until a desperate 16-year-old girl -- apparently pregnant with a second baby and battered so badly she had sufferered broken ribs -- called a family violence hot line pleading for a rescue.

Doran said that he was aware that the Yearning for Zion sect had similar compounds in Utah and Arizona where the group's men had been prosecuted for having sex with underage girls. "We were suspicious" that a similar problem existed on the remote ranch in the Texas town of Eldorado, he said.

"But you can only press somebody so far without having a criminal investigation going on," Doran said.

Doran wouldn't identify the informant or answer any questions about the person.

'I am going to protect my informant," he said.

Doran's revelations came a day after court documents spilled even more of the group's secrets, including the presence of a bed in the sect's temple so men could have sex with their child brides.

And as if the 461 children rescued from the Yearning for Zion Ranch hadn't suffered enough, officials said there was an outbreak of chickenpox among them.

Officials said about a dozen sect children were diagnosed with the disease and were separated from the others, who are being housed in a shelter in San Angelo, Texas.

The rules of the cult clearly continue to shock investigators, despite the legalese in the court documents describing their discoveries, including emphasis on sex with their underage wives.

The temple "contains an area where there is a bed where males over the age of 17 engage in sexual activity with female children under the age of 17," according to a court affidavit.

The temple marriage bed's linens were mussed and had hair from a female, said the affidavit signed by Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long and unsealed Wednesday.

The documents also noted that among the children there was a 16-year-old girl who had given birth to four children.

She is not thought to be the same 16-year-old who triggered last week's police raid by calling a family violence shelter and pleading for help. The caller told counselors she had an 8-month-old infant and believed she was pregnant with a second child.

Police have said there are several pregnant teenagers among the girls taken from the ranch.

The caller told authorities that her 50-year-old husband would force himself on her sexually, beat her, punch her in the chest and choke her. He once broke several of her ribs, she complained. And while he beat her, one of his six other wives would hold her baby.

That did not come as a shock to Flora Jessop, a former child bride who was returned to the sect when she ran away.

"I spent three years in solitary confinement with them trying to beat Satan out of me because I stood up against God's commandments," Jessop told "Good Morning America."

" I know first-hand that what this little girl is saying is the absolute truth, that she is in imminent danger. They do lock you up. They beat you. They whip you. They brutalize you and they psychologically destroy you. Most of the children would not be able to withstand the psychological torture that they put you through."

Jessop said the caller is not yet safe because she is pregnant with another child.

"They are going to use that child against her, to keep her from talking. They're also going to use threats against her other family members to keep her from talking. That's very common," Jessop said.

The affidavits also said officials were seeking access to a series of locked vaults, safes and desk drawers.

Police and prosecutors in Utah and Arizona have investigated members of the fundamentalist splinter group, which is thought to have as many as 40,000 members nationwide. Sect leader Warren Jeffs was convicted last year of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl in Utah.

But El Dorado, Texas, Mayor John Nikolank told ABC News that investigators did not search the compound earlier because they needed evidence that girls were being abused. "This is America. You don't just go in on a perception that they are doing something wrong without any proof," he said.

"I think Texas is setting a precedent for what can be done and hopefully our government will become braver and attempt to help and bring these children out. They're slaves," said Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy.

Lawyers for the sect had challenged the search on constitutional grounds, but agreed in court Wednesday to the appointment of a special master. The special master will vet what is expected to be hundreds of boxes of records, computers and even family Bibles for records that should not become evidence for legal or religious reasons.

Legal experts have told ABC News that they expected the search to be upheld. Marci Hamilton, a Princeton law professor, said the search was done in order to get children in imminent risk of harm out of the compound.

She said legislators should make it easier for children to bring lawsuits against their abusers.

"We have rose-colored glasses when it comes to religious groups and we see children who are known to be abused in this group and in other groups. As society, we do not jump in fast enough," she said.

Some people have contacted CPS about donating clothes or toys for the children. If you wish to donate items, contact Bernadette Cashin at 713-940-5252.

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