Image: Polygamist ranch raid
Tony Gutierrez  /  AP file
Members of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints head to a bus to move them from their ranch in Eldorado to San Angelo, Texas, on April 6, 2008.
updated 5/13/2009 4:29:24 PM ET 2009-05-13T20:29:24

Authorities leveraged a fake abuse claim to justify a massive raid of a polygamist sect's ranch when their true purpose was to persecute an unpopular religious group, attorneys for 10 indicted members of the sect said Wednesday.

The lawyers asked a judge to throw out evidence seized in the raid, but state prosecutors said law enforcement had probable cause to search the Yearning For Zion Ranch last year and that the evidence, including documents that list plural and underage marriages and pregnancies among sect girls, should not be suppressed.

Twelve members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been indicted on charges including sexual assault of a child and bigamy since the April 2008 raid, in which more than 400 sect children were temporarily swept into custody. The suppression motion covers all but jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs, who awaits trial in Arizona on charges of being accomplice to rape, and a sect member who faces only misdemeanor charges.

Any decision to suppress some of the evidence could hurt the state's case because sect women and girls have been reluctant to testify, even in secret grand jury proceedings.

Defense attorney Gerald Goldstein said it was unfair of the state to treat the ranch as one residence for the purposes of the search; he said in court filings that it amounted to an unconstitutional rummage through an entire village. The 1,700-acre ranch in the west Texas town of Eldorado is owned by a trust controlled by the church, which believes in maintaining all property in common, meaning community members share everything.

Hot line call
The raid began after a domestic abuse hot line received numerous calls from someone claiming to be a 16-year-old mother and wife who was being physically abused at the ranch. The first search warrant allowed authorities to look for the caller, a "Sarah Barlow," and named her husband as "Dale Barlow" — a name provided not by the caller but by a domestic abuse hot line worker who did an Internet search for "Barlow" and found stories about a previous case involving a sect member in Arizona.

The first warrant led to the issuance of a broader warrant giving officers the authority to search for any evidence of underage marriages and sex.

The Texas Rangers have since named a 34-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., woman as a "person of interest" in the hot line calls and acknowledged there was no "Sarah Barlow" at the ranch.

The Colorado Springs woman, Rozita Swinton, has a history of multiple personality disorder and faked reports of abuse to law enforcement. She faces a misdemeanor charge of making a false report in a separate incident in Colorado and is scheduled to go on trial May 19. She has not been charged in Texas.

Probable cause?
Goldstein said Texas Ranger Brooks Long, whose affidavit was used to help obtain the search warrant, failed to take even basic steps to check the credibility of the calls.

"It is clear that the authorities used a hoax phone call as an excuse for staging a massively intrusive raid upon a disfavored religious group," Goldstein said in his written motion.

Prosecutors, however, say law enforcement had the required probable cause to search the ranch, regardless of later evidence about the calls' origins.

Authorities had "substantial basis for concluding that a search would uncover evidence of wrongdoing," said Deputy Attorney General Eric Nichols in his response to Goldstein's motion. He also argues that the warrant wasn't overly broad because it restricted the search to a gated ranch.

The criminal cases, though prompted by the initial child abuse investigation, are separate from the child custody cases that swept 439 ranch children into foster care at one time. All but one of the child welfare cases ended with the children being allowed to stay with their parents; an alleged child bride of Jeffs' is staying with a relative.

The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

More on: polygamist   |  Mormon

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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