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Inside private world of polygamist ranch

Rumors are swirling about women at a polygamist ranch being brainwashed, with child brides suffering physical abuse. What really went on at that ranch? Keith Morrison gets a personal tour of a private world.

There is a place, here in the heart of Texas, where the pain runs very deep just now.

Lorene: Clinging to my skirt. My baby's sick.Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: How old is your baby?Lorene: Seventeen months -- and he's so sick.Keith Morrison: Who has him?Lorene: I don't know, some woman has him, I don't know who it is.

Here they were, coming home in clumps of threes or fours, minus their children -- who had just been taken from them and bused away to foster homes, shelters, and group homes.

But where? How far? They do not know.

They are carrying in their hands envelopes they were given when authorities took their children, with little pamphlets inside: parenting guides.

Mother: As if we don't know how to be parents.

It’s a very strange story you're about to hear.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is now embroiled in the biggest child custody case in the history of the United States.

A sports stadium is packed with frightened women and children. A local courthouse swarms with prosecutors and legal aid lawyers by the hundreds, thick stacks of briefs, and chaos.

Perhaps you know of the state's allegations about these people, the stories about their insular world of multiple wives and many children.

You've seen the prairie Elvis hair-do, those dresses, the long underwear in the Texas sun.

But who are these people? Why do they shut themselves off from the world?

There are so many stories.

This, for example, is from the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott:

Greg Abbott: From information we have, that we'll see if it turns out to be true. Children were removed from their parents at birth. Some of these mothers may not even know who their children are.

Yes, and did you hear about that bed the Texas rangers found in the huge mysterious temple? Could that have been used for some ritual sex ceremony with underage girls?

And what about their prophet, Warren Jeffs? He's in prison, after all, convicted of being an accomplice to rape. Could these people be predators?

When the FLDS came to Texas, they sneaked in quietly, didn't tell the neighbors, and it wasn't long before the stories started flying around, courtesy of some ex-members.

Flora Jessop: Be aware that this is a group that is systemically abusive to their own children.

Flora Jessop was one of the first to sound the alarm. When the FLDS moved in, in the spring of 2004, she held a press conference outside the Eldorado sheriff's office to warn the town folk.

Flora Jessop: And I was like "OK, yeah, the polygamists are moving in." And that concerned me very much.

Jessop ran away from an FLDS community in Colorado City, Ariz., when she was 17. And ever since -- that's 22 years ago now -- she has encouraged others to leave, campaigning against what she says is the church's practice of fostering an environment where women are abused, forced to marry and bear children at a very young age.

Flora Jessop: It's terrorism hiding behind the skirt of religion. Because this has nothing to do with religion. Has everything to do with a culture of abuse.

And then this spring, the scene was set, and the drama began.

It was the end of March. First, there were phone calls to a family shelter. The caller said her name is Sarah, and she was calling from the Yearning for Zion Ranch -- the Texas home of the FLDS. She was 16, she said, pregnant, in trouble, being beaten, sexually abused, by her much older husband. She begged for help to get out.

And then there was this: April 3. Five days later. Texas state troopers and child welfare officials swarmed the ranch, moving in with tanks and weapons. It was a massive raid, with overwhelming power.

They searched the apartments, the school. They broke open unanswered doors, wrenched open doors to the temple. Over the next few days, they removed hundreds of mothers and children -- 462 children all together.

Pictures taken by church members as the raid went down show women huddled in terrified groups; children wail.

The church has posted the pictures and videos on a website for the entire world to see.

This clip shows families asking in vain to see a warrant and get an explanation.

(FLDS video)The attorney does have the search warrant.FLDS woman: But we don't get to see it?No ma'am.

Richard Jessop says his family was in the midst of a nightly gathering of storytelling, praying and singing.

Richard Jessop: When they knocked on the door, I just told the family, "Keep singing."Keith Morrison: Did you feel like you were being treated like a criminal?Richard Jessop: Oh yes. What's all this manpower and these two SWAT teams standing here? Why do these men have machine guns?

The women and children were held first at the complex of Fort Concho, an hour away, then taken to this sports coliseum. Three weeks elapsed. During which the mothers said they were offered a choice.

Keith Morrison: Were you allowed to leave at all?Mother: If we left, we couldn't come back to our children.

So here they stayed. The media, and even their own lawyers, were refused entry. While the state raised serious questions about the welfare of their children.

Attorney General Abbott: This is something that the child protective services deals with all the time. When they find that a child is in a home of four children where one has been sexually assaulted, they will remove them all to make sure they're removed from a zone of danger. This happened to be a home with 400 kids, as opposed to four kids.

Legal aid lawyers rushed in to help, insisting the FLDS members were being unfairly persecuted, targeted for their religious beliefs.

Julie Balovich, attorney: I can't imagine any other community in the United States that would stand for this. I can't imagine any individual mother that would stand for this. Imagine someone coming into your home, rounding you up, taking your child, putting you in this building, never giving you any type of piece of paper that says why your children have been taken away.

They made a plea in court, but the judge said sorry, the state will keep custody of the children -- all 462 of them, at least until individual hearings are conducted. Which could take months.

And the court ordered DNA testing of every man, woman and child, looking for evidence. Were those who claimed to be the parents, the actual parents?

Marleigh Meisner, Texas CPS spokesperson: This is not about religion, this is about children, keeping children safe from abuse and neglect.

In the process of getting his DNA tested, one male FLDS member was asked if he found the process humiliating. “You ever read about a concentration camp?” he asked. “You're getting it pretty close.”

And then, this past Thursday, they bused the children off to foster homes and left the mothers behind. The women thought they had more time, they said. They'd hoped the state would allow them to at least stay in the same place as their children, they said.

Then, for the second time, they were offered a choice, the women told us: allow the state to bus them to a women's shelter, or go back to the ranch. But authorities told them, said these women, if they chose the ranch, they might never see their children again.

Lorene: They wouldn't let us say goodbye. But I gathered him up anyway. I didn't care what they said.

The state issued a press release saying 40 women chose to be transported to a "safe location."

But these mothers returned to the ranch. They decided they'd had enough. They no longer believed the child services people. It was time to fight back.

And intensely private though they are, and with great trepidation, they invited us inside their homes for an intimate tour. You're about to get a look at a way of life they say is just different -- and grossly misunderstood.

There is a country road that snakes out, through the scrub oak and rocky soil, from a tiny place called Eldorado, Texas. Population: 1,900 or so. Good people. Old town. Lots of churches.

But drive down that road, and off in the distance it looms on the horizon like some alien structure. It’s the Temple of Yearning for Zion.

That's what they call their little town: Yearning for Zion. Their utopia.

But here is where the state claims there was an immediate danger to children and a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse and neglect.

"This is a classroom that hasn't been cleaned up after the state people did their search."

We have been given unprecedented access inside.

“These are the lower grade classrooms.”

People, schools, homes. To tell their side of the story.

Five years ago this land – 1,700 acres in all -- was utterly empty, and exotic animals wandered. It was a hunting preserve.

And now? For 700 people, it's home.

They've wrenched untold tons of rock from the soil they've enriched for farming.

Richard: We try to focus on the natural foods, whole foods, organic foods.

There's a fleet of trucks over the horizon that way, shops for fabricating wood and metal.

A school. A meeting hall. A temple -- and annex. Every single limestone block from which these buildings were made was cut from the ground right here.

Rich: Yeah, I like it up here.

But as we look at it all from the summit of the limestone mountain they've made, Richard Jessop’s heart is not really in the tour.

Richard: They've wronged a whole community here. And we're a peaceful people.

He's alone as we speak, his family – including his seven kids -- taken.

He wanders the empty house and shows us the poster his kids used to divvy up bathroom cleaning chores.

"This is where those four older boys live."

The school's empty classrooms. It all confirms, he says, what he's known, himself, for years.

Richard: We've got enemies. There are people that have been associated with our religion for years and years. And they get disaffected, disinterested, bad feelings. And it’s just a bunch of lies. But the bad part about it is we've got officials that have believed it.

The whole place has the feel of life interrupted.

Keith Morrison: Still got their jackets hanging on…Rich: Well, yes. Of course it’s not like it happened easy. It was an uprooting.

Rich says evidence was seized from every home, every building, every classroom.

Every family lost precious photos, paperwork, computers.

Rich: Any locked doors, they just blasted through them.

And then we understand his bottom line when he tells us the community lost its temple.

Rich: We pleaded with these people that there's nothing in there. Leave that building alone. It’s a sacred place.

It’s a place that has always been off limits to visitors, including media. The authorities used hydraulic tools to force the door open and seized documents.

Rich: We believe that the presence of God is in that building. And when its desecrated like it has been, it’s useless.Keith Morrison: What are you going to do?Rich: As far as I’m concerned, set fire to that building.

Inside, authorities took note of that bed, the one some imply is used for some sex ceremony as they deflower young brides. Police notes describe "bed linens disturbed," a strand of woman's hair on the pillow.

Rich: To me that's so disgusting that some immoral mind can apply their mentality to it. In temple work doing sacred ordinances, there's fasting and praying. And it’s just not that uncommon for someone to be fatigued and have to lay down.

But the big question in all this trouble has been about the sexual abuse of young girls and women, and illegal forced marriages. There are allegations that it has happened here -- things Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says are simply unacceptable.

Attorney General Abbott: If it is a religious belief to sexually assault a girl once she reaches puberty, should we accept that? No.

The thing is, says Rich, nobody here would accept that either.

Rich: Well, I would just invite him to go right into his very own community and scoop up 400 people, pull them out of their homes, ransack their closets, take every record we can find, and scrutinize it to the letter, and you tell me what you're going to find.Keith Morrison: They found a few problems here?Rich: That's their allegation. There's no abuse, period. There's healthy, happy children. And they've all been snuffed away.

Instead, he says, the outside world seems to focus only on their practice of plural marriage, and all anyone wants to know is how many wives they have. It’s a question he himself did not wish to answer.

Rich: Well, that's kind of a stupid question. I think the media, the public knows the way we live.

There's a strange, almost science fiction feel to a town of vanished children. Its empty. Grieving happens in private.

We encounter a couple, clinging together, coaxing a garden to life. Rulon and Lorene. They say they are by no means alone here with their more typical American marriage. It’s just the two of them and their six kids -- until this morning.

Lorene, it turns out, is one of the tearful women just returned from that sports stadium, where she watched her children bused off to foster care. She worries most about Natalie, her only daughter.

Lorene: She's always been very attached, she doesn't do well without me.

Authorities said they'd attempt not to separate siblings, but couldn't guarantee it as they spread the children around the vast state of Texas.

Keith Morrison: You don't know where they've gone?Rulon and Lorene: No.Keith Morrison: Have they gone to one place or more than one place?Rulon: We've heard more than one.Lorene: We've heard rumors that they're split up.

During the long weeks in the coliseum, Lorene says, she and the other women were unable to communicate with their husbands.

Lorene: They didn't want us talking to them. They feel like they're predators.Rulon: They feel like the husbands are just criminals. They haven't even talked to us. I have not been served any papers. I don't know what my charges are.Lorene: I haven't been served papers.

The house is large, and, like Richard’s, empty, eerie.

We ask to see photos of the children. Anything recent, we discover, was seized in the raid. But unlike most of the families here, they managed to save one album. It's all they have of their children now.

Lorene sits on the bed and relives the horror of captivity in the coliseum.

Lorene: We were on the floor, the concrete floor, and there's rows and rows and rows and rows of cots. We've been taken from our nice, clean homes, and brought together into a place where the children are so close one child coughs and the whole room gets sick. Every night there would be children throwing up. I don't feel like they had the child's best interest in mind at all.Keith Morrison: You coping? You two?Rulon: We're alive, but we're only part way here.

And this very morning, Lorene tells us, was her 3-year-old's birthday.

Lorene: He turned 3 today. His third birthday and they took his mother away.

But surely a government agency dedicated to child protection would not intentionally create this kind of pain without good cause.

Along with allegations that women at the ranch were brainwashed and children abused, there are other questions. What should happen to the kids taken from the ranch? And what about "Sarah" herself, the one who called a hotline begging for help?

She spoke in a frightened whisper, claiming she was a pregnant, teenaged mother being held against her will at the Yearning for Zion ranch. She was wife number 7, she said, married to a middle-aged man who forced himself on her sexually and beat her viciously while another woman held down her infant child.

But three weeks after "Sarah’s" mysterious phone call prompted a massive raid, with armed men ransacking the ranch and the church's sacred temple -- and hundreds of women and children swooped away on buses - authorities have yet to find her.

(News conference)Sheriff David Doran, Eldorado, Texas: The rangers, child protective services, and everybody is diligently working on that to identify that person.

The FLDS church members don't buy it. They say it stinks of fabrication.

Richard: It was all just a set upKeith Morrison, Dateline NBC: You say it's a set up?Richard: That's my opinion.Willie Jessop, FLDS: There's no victim. Nothing even remotely close to the allegations of what they came in on.Keith Morrison: They want to shut you down, make you move away? You don't belong here? What's the deal?Willie Jessop: Wouldn't we like to know that.

Is it possible the lives of these devoutly religious people were turned upside down because of a call from someone who may not even exist?

A week ago, the Texas rangers issued a press release saying they are actively pursuing a woman named Rozita Swinton as a "person of interest" in the case. Swinton has a history of making phony calls and even using the name Sarah.

Flora Jessop: When she very first called me, she identified herself as Sarah, a 16-year-old.

In late March, at the very same time the girl claiming to be "wife number 7" called a Texas shelter for help, Flora Jessop, the former FLDS member, was also getting calls from a girl who said she was at the church's Arizona location, 16, pregnant, and in danger.

Flora Jessop: Everything she said to me rang absolutely true. She is very believable. She sounds like an injured child when she makes these calls.

(Flora Jessop recording)"Sarah": Thank you for trying to comfort me.

But something didn't sound right. Flora started recording the calls. She spent some 40 hours on the phone with the girl before she was finally able to coax a confession out of her.

Flora Jessop: Tell me what your real name is. Are you from the FLDS? "Sarah": I don't want to get in trouble.

She wasn't a teenager at all. She was Rozita Swinton, who is not 16 years old. She is 33. Nor does she belong to FLDS.

Flora Jessop: I’m still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that it was a 33-year-old woman that was making these calls to me.

Is there a connection? Is it possible 33-year-old Rozita Swinton is also the person who made the calls to the shelter? Did she fool the Texas child protection authorities into thinking she was an abused 16-year-old mother?

Jessop says it doesn't matter. Even if the call that initiated the raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch was a fraud, she says, the state of Texas made the right move.

Flora Jessop: They still did the right thing, because what they found once they entered that compound was absolutely valid. The men inside the FLDS are predators.

What did the state investigation uncover? It says it found 20 minors who had been impregnated between the ages of 13 and 16.

Rod Parker, an attorney for the church, claims the case of the 13-year-old occurred in a different state ten years ago. And the others? Of them, he says, only one may have been under the legal age of marriage.

Rod Parker: I know that there are examples where an abuse has been discovered within the community. And the community has taken action, turned them over to authorities.Keith Morrison: People in this country do not condone sex between an adult and an underage girl. That is sex abuse.Rod Parker: Right, and neither do I condone that.Keith Morrison: We're talking about 50-year-old men having sex with 14- and 15-year-old girls, and that isn’t on. Americans won't accept it.Rod Parker: I’m not sure that we have any evidence of that.

Parker, the FLDS church members, and the bevy of attorneys representing them, insist the state is not only wrong but it overstepped its boundaries and violated their rights in the worst possible way.

Rod Parker: What the state is saying by taking away every child of these people is, if you're a member of this religion, we don't care what you think. It's such overkill. It's such cruelty to tear these families apart. It's unconstitutional and it's inhumane.Keith Morrison: How is this religion not to think that you're trying to shut it down? That you're persecuting it?Abbott: Because the laws of Texas are clear. You cannot have sex with a girl who is underage. That you cannot marry off a girl who is underage. Doesn't matter to me or the state of Texas what their religious background is, you can't sexually assault a young child.Keith Morrison: What if what you’re saying about this group of people is not factually correct and you've moved all these children?Abbott: If it turns out it's untrue, they'll be placed back in their home. This happens every day.

So far, no charges have been filed.

But every day, here at the ranch they call Yearning for Zion, people like Lorene and Rulon find it harder to imagine the day that their children are back in their arms again.

Rulon: We don't know why we got caught up in this, other than because of our religion, no other reason. They haven't proved any other reason.