The secretive and insular community established near this West Texas town by a radical offshoot of the Mormon Church is considered by the sect's members to be a holy shrine populated by its most fervent adherents and is propped up financially by members of the group living in other states, according to law enforcement officials and former members.
Interviews with law enforcement authorities and former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints depict the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which was raided last week by Texas authorities, as an outpost whose adult residents were considered the sect's elite. They were handpicked by the church's leader, Warren Jeffs, who was convicted last year in Utah of being an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her cousin.
Jeffs dubbed those chosen for the ranch as the "elect" or "heart's core," selected to live in the "holy land," as he called the compound. The adults were his most loyal followers and the young children were the least "contaminated" by the outside world, former church members say. According to court documents, adherents living at the ranch practiced the most extreme tenets of FLDS doctrine, including forcing girls as young as 13 to "spiritually marry" older men for the purpose of bearing their children.
The community near Eldorado was financially supported by FLDS members in Arizona and Utah, said former member Richard Holm. Donations to support the ranch would help make the giver more worthy, said Holm, a former Colorado City, Ariz., resident now living in Hurricane, Utah.
"They wanted to be holy enough to be called there themselves," said Holm, who was kicked out of the sect by Jeffs in 2003.
The ranch is also the location of the sect's only temple, an 80-foot-tall limestone edifice that looms above the scrub brush. When Texas authorities appeared at the ranch last week to search for an allegedly abused girl, residents linked arms to form a human chain around the temple, hoping they could prevent its desecration.
Off the radar
The FLDS community on the 1,700-acre ranch remained largely off the radar screen of Texas officials until a girl, 16, made calls to a domestic abuse hotline on March 29 and 30. She alleged that she had been forced to marry a man three times her age who regularly beat her and that she was being kept at the ranch against her will.
Texas officials said last week that without a complaint or evidence of a crime, they were prohibited from entering the privately owned compound. The "outcry," as officials call it, that gave them cause to act came with the girl's phone calls.
The calls and subsequent interviews of people at the site in Texas prompted authorities to remove 416 children -- most of them girls -- from the ranch, the largest child-removal case in the state's history.
On Sunday, Texas officials confiscated cellphones from women who had voluntarily accompanied the children from the ranch. Lawyers appointed to represent 18 of the children sought a judge's order to confiscate the phones, fearing witness tampering, said Marissa Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services.
Tacit truce between sects, law enforcement
The extremism practiced at the West Texas ranch took place during a time when authorities in Arizona and Utah were engaged in outreach to polygamist groups in their states that had broken with the Mormon Church over the issue. As part of the effort, authorities engaged in a tacit agreement with these sects: They would not crack down on polygamy so long as underage girls were not involved.
While FLDS leaders never officially forswore forcing teenage girls to marry older men, the sect did come out of the shadows. Its communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., allowed some local and state offices to be set up. Utah and Arizona authorities hold periodic town hall meetings there, as well as training sessions on what constitutes sexual abuse of children. A hotline created to report such problems is advertised widely and has been used occasionally, according to authorities.
Opening up these FLDS communities, authorities reasoned, would make it easier for the abuse of young girls to be discovered. But Utah Attorney General Mark L. Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard have said often that Jeffs's establishment of the ranch -- the FLDS bought the land in late 2003 and began constructing and populating the compound in 2004 -- was an attempt to escape the scrutiny the sect was getting in their states.
"It crossed our mind all the time . . . when they first moved to Texas . . . that some of the abusive practices that we were trying to quell and get witnesses to testify to in Arizona" might be practiced in Texas, Goddard said.
Jeffs is awaiting trial in Arizona on sex charges involving minors.
The mass action in Texas was reminiscent of the 1953 raid by Arizona police and the National Guard at Short Creek, now Colorado City, over similar child-abuse allegations. That event led to almost half a century of tense alienation of the FLDS and other polygamous communities from Utah and Arizona authorities.
Fears of a loss of trust
While they are not critical of Texas authorities for moving on the girl's allegations, both Goddard and Shurtleff say they fear a setback in their efforts to gain the confidence of polygamist groups.
"We do fear that this raid is going to have an impact on those relationships," said Shurtleff's spokesman, Paul Murphy. "The polygamists I've talked to have been very traumatized by the raid, and it's causing them to rethink whether they want to talk to us. We know it's created a tremendous amount of fear."
The director of a pro-polygamy group called Principle Voices, based in Salt Lake City, agreed. Mary Batchelor, who said she considers herself an independent fundamentalist Mormon, has worked closely with Utah and Arizona authorities and nonprofit organizations in what is called the Safety Network. The cross-border effort is aimed at educating polygamous groups on what constitutes child and sexual abuse and domestic violence, and how to prevent and report those crimes.
"We've made a lot of headway with other groups who pledged to marry as adults and who took public pledges to discourage underage marriages," Batchelor said. "The FLDS was the only group that was not willing to agree to that."
She lauded the efforts of Utah and Arizona to focus not so much on the issue of polygamy but on crimes against minors, and she said she does not condone underage marriage among fundamentalist Mormons. But she predicted that the Texas raid will have a detrimental effect in that community.
"Our biggest fear was that we would have another raid," Batchelor said. "Our hope and all our work we've done was to avoid that. Now there is hurt and dismay."