Polygamist sect: the secrets of the Zion ranch

The Texas town of Eldorado had always wondered why a fundamentalist church had chosen to set up a compound there. This week, to their horror, they discovered the truth

When a member of the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints turned up in the sleepy Texas town of Eldorado four years ago and paid $700,000 (£350,000) for an abandoned exotic-animal farm on its outskirts comprising 1,700 acres of prairie scrub, many residents were disturbed. "The Devil is Here!" was the slogan drawn on one protest placard paraded outside civic offices at the time.

The locals were sceptical of claims by the purchaser, David Allred, that he planned to turn the property into a hunting preserve. Of all the habits associated with the church – including polygamy and self-sufficiency – no one had heard of rabbit-chasing. The land, they thought, would become another enclave.

Over the months, a compound began to take shape. Roads were laid, housing blocks rose, as well as other unidentified buildings. Only an 80-foot high limestone temple was visible from town, where anxieties about the arrivals began to subside. They kept to themselves and, better still, they paid their taxes. In fact, so large was the community that, in the past fiscal year, it contributed nearly half a million dollars to city revenues. "There was a lot of paranoia in the beginning," noted Randy Mankin, editor of the Eldorado Success. But, he went on, "they live on their property, we never see them. One or two men come into town but we never see [the others]."

Curiosity lingered about what went on behind the tall iron gates of what became the "Yearning For Zion ranch", named after a song written by its founder, Warren Jeffs. This is the same Jeffs who, last year, was tried and convicted in Utah for being an accomplice to rape, stemming from a marriage arranged between an under-age girl and a much older cousin. Jeffs, serving two consecutive five-year sentences, faces additional charges filed in Arizona involving incest and sexual conduct with a minor.

Even with Jeff's jailing the ranch remained off-limits, not just to the locals but to law-enforcement agencies. They have been in a tense stand-off with the church at its outposts, particularly its main base in the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border, for decades. Though tales of sexual oppression and shared husbands, usually told by women who have escaped, seep out regularly, the authorities could only wait for an unexpected turn of events to try to crack open its wall of secrecy. In Eldorado, about 200 miles north of San Antonio, that moment has arrived.

Today, Texas finds itself handling the biggest child-abuse investigation in state history. And the FCLS is facing the biggest challenge yet to its existence. It was formed in 1935 after breaking away from the main Mormon denomination, the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City. More than a century ago this branch disavowed polygamy, once a main tenet of the faith.

Last Saturday, Texas state police, assisted by Swat teams and helicopters, breached the gates and raided the ranch. They were still on site searching it last night, five days later. Now, court papers unsealed and released to the state media late on Tuesday are giving a first glimpse of what they have found there as well as the sequence of events that triggered the assault.

The public's worst suspicions about the church are being confirmed. The television images of the authorities evacuating scores of women and young children have been shocking enough. Filing reluctantly to buses to be taken away, they are dressed in hand-sewn garments that might have been the fashion in the days of the US's founding fathers. As of yesterday, 419 minors had been taken away with 139 women who had volunteered to look after them. For now they are being housed in a former frontier fort in the larger neighbouring city of San Angelo. The men have stayed behind. Among them only two have so far been arrested, one the 19-year-old eldest son of Jeffs.

This all started with a whispered phone call on the night of 29 March to a local women's shelter. The caller, then and in several follow-up calls the next day, described a predicament that the shelter relayed to the police. She said she was 16 and had been placed in the ranch three years ago by her parents. After turning 15, she had been "spiritually married" to a 49-year-old man by whom she had had one child. She suspected she was into the early weeks of a second pregnancy.

"Spiritually married" sounds almost sweet but could be more like a synonym for sexual enslavement. The girl spoke of being forced by her husband into having sex with him and being beaten by him regularly, most recently over Easter. Once, she said, she was taken off the ranch for medical treatment after he had broken her ribs. He allegedly beat her chest and choked her in front of his other wives. When the girl asked her elders if she could leave, she was told that outsiders would cut her hair off and force her to have sex with "lots of men". She once considered feigning illness to ensure being taken beyond the fence for a second time and then running away. But her plot failed when elders refused to allow her to take her infant.

The affidavit goes on to say that, towards the end of the last phone call, she began crying and seemed to take fright at what she had revealed. She said, before hanging up, "that she is happy and fine and does not want to get into trouble, and that everything that she had previously said should be forgotten".

It was not forgotten. When the authorities began their raid they feared violent resistance, hence the Swat teams and helicopters. Memories are still raw in Texas of the 1993 federal assault on the Waco compound of the Branch Davidian sect that ended in the fiery deaths of 76 members, including 21 children. Luckily, there was no such fire in Eldorado.

There were altercations. Levi Barlow Jeffs, the son of Warren, was arrested for allegedly "interfering with the duties of a public servant". Another man, Leroy Steed, 41, was accused of trying to tamper with evidence. Particularly provocative to church leaders was the insistence by police that they search the temple, a sanctum usually accessible to church members only. They were looking for the girl who called, but she has not been found.

What had been built was superficially impressive, mixing old-fashioned sensibilities with modern needs and reflecting the group's doctrine of self-sufficiency and isolation. Aside from housing wings, the temple and a large hall, it also features a cheese-making factory, a cement plant, orchards, gardens, a doctor's office and a school. What interested police were the moral conditions the children were being held in. Above all, the court papers say, they found that the plight described by the caller was not unique. Among the evacuated teenage girls, many are pregnant or have infants already.

"Investigators determined that there is a widespread pattern and practice among the residents in which young minor female residents are conditioned to expect and accept sexual activity with adult men on being spiritually married to them," the affidavit states. Such marriages take place "once a minor female is determined by leaders of the YFZ ranch to have reached child-bearing age, approximately 13 to 14 years".

None of this comes as a surprise to those few women, such as Laurie Allen, who have escaped this and other fundamentalist settlements. This week, she said that "mind control" was used on the women and children.

"From the time you are born you are taught not to think for yourself," she said. "You are taught to do exactly what you are told. The women are treated like property. This is an Old Testament system where the women are just chattel and the children are the same. They are property."

Carolyn Jessop, who wrote of her time inside the church in a book called Escape, has a link to the ranch – her former shared husband, Merrill Jessop, is its leader in place of Jeffs. She speculated that, rather than welcoming their liberation, the women and children would be terrified and want to go back. "They were born into this," Ms Jessop says. "They have no concept of mainstream society, and their mothers were born into it and have no concept of mainstream society. Once you go into the compound, you don't ever leave it."

Investigators have run headlong into this cultural divide. The court papers describe the difficulties faced by welfare officers in trying to assign individual children to their mothers, many of whom have hardly been helpful. Most of the children have been unwilling or unable to say who their parents are, give their birthdays or say where they were born. "This has made it difficult to determine who are the parents of the children."

Mr Jessop is trying to fight back. He has solicited a Texas court to order the authorities to vacate the ranch and allow the women and children to return, claiming their rights have been violated. "There needs to be a public outcry that goes far and wide," he said. "The hauling off of women and children matches anything in Russia or Germany."

If the courts prove to be unsympathetic to Mr Jessop, it may be because the way women and children have been treated at the ranch matches anything from before the Middle Ages.

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