Polygamy kids may end up in foster care

SAN ANGELO, TX IMAGES: See photos from this story

Child welfare officials took more than 400 children into custody last week on suspicion that they were being sexually and physically abused after police raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound. Hundreds of women from the sect voluntarily followed the children.

Protective services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said at a news conference today that the children would remain in state custody in the San Angelo, Texas, area until April 17, when a judge decides if they will remain in state custody.

No one from the outside will be permitted to see the children before the hearing, she said. "These children are with us because we believe they have been abused or neglected," she said.

If the children stay in long-term state custody, the government will look for foster homes for them, Meisner said.

Meisner said that a number of women from the polygamous group voluntarily came with the children and were free to leave. "These women came of their own free will," she said.

Several other mothers, who are not in state custody, have publicly said they are being kept from seeing their children.

Texas police searched the compound last week after the girl -- apparently pregnant with a second baby and battered so badly she had suffered broken ribs -- called a family violence hot line pleading for a rescue. She told counselors on the phone that her 50-year-old husband had beat and raped her.

Authorities have not identified the girl, but Meisner said they were "hopeful" that she is in state custody. Court documents released Friday show that investigators seized medical records for several women who shared the same name the teenager gave when she called.

Rena Mackert, who said she fled from the sect in Arizona, said the girl was probably "scared to death" to come forward because of the fear of retribution.

"She'll lose everything," she said. "They rape and murder the souls of these young women until they have no will and no desire and no knowledge that they don't have to submit to it."

On Friday, court documents revealed that the Texas Rangers had seized hundreds of photographs, documents and computers during their raid on the compound.

The search uncovered a pregnancy test, a "cyanide poisoning document" and medical records for women with the same name given by a 16-year-old girl whose call for help prompted the move.

Many of the documents, which were listed in more than 70 pages of court records, appear designed to help police determine the confusing family structures within the secretive compound, where authorities suspect young girls were sexually abused as child brides.

Those documents include birth records, family histories, numerous photo albums, family journals and personal diaries. The trove of information also includes such mundane items as parent-teacher conference sheets and at least one child's history test paper.

Other items in the list of evidence sound more ominous, including a "cyanide poisoning document," "Nephi Jeffs firearms training," "gray photo album miscellaneous weapons information," "attitude and behavior weekly sheets" and "mail from houses in hiding."

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.

Court records indicate that despite being isolated from what they called the "outsiders' world," members of the Yearning for Zion Ranch owned dozens of laptops, cell phones and thumb drives, which authorities confiscated.

One item was "correspondence with Warren Jeffs," the sect's leader. He was convicted in September of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl in Utah.

At times it appeared as if the police had simply cleaned out the closets at the compound, taking away men's ties, shoes and belts; about 80 sets of white suits or white women's clothing; and "clothing belonging to Grandmother Ruth Jeffs."

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety acknowledged to ABC News that law enforcement officials were intentionally vague in their descriptions of the many items seized from the compound and said authorities do not have any immediate plans to release more specific information on the property taken this week from the ranch.

"Right now [officials] don't want to be more open with what they have than they have been,'' spokeswoman Tela Mange said. "It's an ongoing investigation&and [officials] don't want to try this case in the media."

Asked what exactly a "cyanide poisoning document' is or could be, Mange said "I have no idea."

Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said Thursday that an informant, who is a former member of the group, had been feeding him information for the past four years.

Doran said that he was aware that the Yearning for Zion Ranch 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, he said, the informant did not tell him of allegations that underage girls were forced to have sex with older men until earlier this month.

"We are aware that this group is capable of [sexually abusing young girls]," Doran said. "But there again, this is the United States. We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry. I've said that from day one."

A court affidavit unsealed Wednesday said Doran's informant had provided him with details about life at the ranch "on more than 20 occasions" but did not tell him until Saturday that the males of the ranch "engage in the practice of marrying multiple wives; at the initial time of the marriage the bride is often under the age of 16 years."

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who has written about polygamy, said that if a source within the compound told police that older men regularly had sex with underage girls, investigators probably would have had probable cause to search the compound even without the complaint from the 16 year old.

"There is an obvious question as to whether the police had information before April or why the police did not try to establish those facts over the long course of their apparent relationship with this informant," he said.

Court documents unsealed earlier this week spilled even more of the group's secrets, including the alleged presence of beds in the sect's temple so men could allegedly have sex with their child brides.

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, citing the confidential informant.

Police say they have found plenty of indications that the group considered young girls to be eligible for "spiritual marriages" to older men. Court documents noted that among the children there was a 16-year-old girl who had given birth to four children.

It took police a week to completely search the sprawling compound; the sect's temple was the last place that was searched. Authorities had to force their way past the locked doors as male members of the sect surrounded the temple, praying and crying.

The FBI also searched the compound on Tuesday, but the documents related to that search remain sealed, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office. An FBI spokesman in Dallas declined to comment.

The church still has large communities along the border between Utah and Arizona.

Sam Brower, a private investigator who has been looking into the church for years, told ABC World News that sect leader Warren Jeffs sent his most loyal followers from those communities to the Texas compound.

"Well you see a lot of underaged girls pregnant," said Isaac Wyler, a former church member. "And around here if a girl's pregnant, she's married."

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.

- Headlines at a glance

Copyright © 2023 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.