Polygamist sect members who were moved to a Texas compound from their longtime homes along the Utah-Arizona line were hand-picked for their fierce loyalty to leader Warren Jeffs, and that allegiance may be a stumbling block for law enforcement, authorities say.
Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, transferred people to Eldorado, Texas, to escape growing government scrutiny on the sect's base in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.
"This was Warren Jeffs' all-star cast," said Goddard, who has been investigating the sect since 2004. "They had the strongest sense of obedience."
As a result, their extreme devotion could make it hard on Texas authorities as they push for prosecutions, said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
"All these girls are taught from the cradle not to trust anybody from the outside," Shurtleff said. "Especially the government. We're the beast. We're the devil."
Girls refused to speak
Authorities raided the Eldorado ranch April 3 after a girl from the clan made a whispered telephone call for help to a family violence shelter. Texas has since taken legal custody of 416 children on suspicions that they were being sexually and physically abused.
Jeffs, who was convicted last year in Utah of being an accomplice to rape, wanted "to isolate and perhaps purify the sect from any kind of outside influences," Goddard said.
Eldorado "is the most concentrated version of this particular style of life," he said.
Prosecutors in Arizona and Utah struggled for years to gain the trust of witnesses in abuse cases, but many young girls still refused to speak out.
"We've had them come out and make statements, and then they disappear, or they recant," Shurtleff said.
The FLDS split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more than a century ago when the mainstream Mormon Church renounced polygamy. The Mormon Church excommunicates members who practice plural marriage.
Until recently, Arizona and Utah authorities had left the FLDS communities in Hildale and Colorado City alone.
The last time Arizona officials focused their attention on the FLDS homeland was a notorious raid in 1953. That action turned into a public relations debacle as pictures circulated of children being pulled from their mothers. Afterward, authorities left the FLDS to police themselves.
However, Goddard started talking with Shurtleff about the FLDS in 2002 shortly after he was elected, his spokesman said.
An escape to Texas
Arizona officials put up a billboard in Colorado City with a toll-free number for young women who felt abused. They got rid of local police officers, who had pledged loyalty to Jeffs, and opened an office in the community manned by Mohave County officers.
The Arizona Board of Education took over the Colorado City school system and Utah officials cut off a major source of assets from the sect's United Effort Plan trust, which was estimated to contain as much as $114 million.
"We were increasing the pressure," Goddard said. "That's when they started this escape to Texas."
In 2005, news started circulating about a new FLDS community that was being built on 1,700 acres in Eldorado.
FLDS leaders said publicly at the time they weren't expecting any apocalyptic event or mass exodus to Texas. But former FLDS member Flora Jessop, 38, said she heard a different story from family members who made it to the Texas compound. Eldorado, Jessop said, was to make up for the failures Jeffs perceived in Colorado City and Hildale.
"Warren thought it was there were too many unfaithful people in Colorado City," Jessop said. "So he started the culling, if you will."
"He started moving all the most faithful to Texas so that God would be able to lift them up while he swept the evil wicked outsiders off the face of the Earth."
Following his Utah conviction, Jeffs is in jail in Arizona while awaiting trial on four counts of incest, four counts of sexual contact with a minor, one of sexual conduct with a minor and one of conspiracy to conduct sexual conduct with a minor. The charges predate the Eldorado raid.