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Court Documents Show Polygamist Sect Married Girls at Puberty

The scared girl, already a mother at 16, whispered into a cell phone: she wanted out. She'd been forced to marry a man more than three times her age, becoming his seventh wife.

Her husband sexually assaulted her, and when he was angry, he would beat her while other women held her infant, she told a family violence shelter in a series of secret calls that triggered an investigation of the polygamist sect here.

The girl had looked for opportunities to escape before, but she was warned that outside the double-gates blocking entry to the Yearning For Zion Ranch, in a world completely foreign to her, she would be forced to cut her hair and wear makeup, and to have sex with many men — all damning transgressions in a faith where modesty calls for women to wear long underwear year-round under pioneer-style dresses.

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At the end of one call she began to cry; she wanted to take it all back.

But child welfare officials allege in court documents released Tuesday that the compound built by leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was rife with sexual abuse, with girls spiritually married to much older men as soon as they reached puberty and boys groomed to perpetuate the cycle.

The documents detail the hushed phone calls, but days after raiding the West Texas compound, officials still aren't sure where the girl is. She is not named among the children in initial custody petitions by the state.

Texas authorities have legal custody of 416 children, all of those believed to have lived at the ranch, Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner told reporters in San Angelo, about 40 miles from the compound in Eldorado.

Court documents said a number of teen girls at the 1,700-acre compound were pregnant, and all the children were removed on the grounds that they were in danger of "emotional, physical, and-or sexual abuse." Nearly 140 women left on their own.

"Investigators determined that there is a widespread pattern and practice of the (YFZ) Ranch in which young, minor female residents are conditioned to expect and accept sexual activity with adult men at the ranch upon being spiritually married to them," read the affidavit signed by Lynn McFadden, a Department of Family and Protective Services investigative supervisor.

McFadden said the girls were spiritually married to the men as soon as they reached puberty and were required to bear children. A spiritual marriage is one recognized by the FLDS church, but lacking a state marriage license. Texas law prohibits polygamy and the marriage of girls under 16.

Attorneys for the church and church leaders have filed motions asking a judge to quash the search on constitutional grounds, saying state authorities didn't have enough evidence and that the warrants were too broad. A hearing on their motion was scheduled for Wednesday in San Angelo.

Church lawyer Patrick Peranteau did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Tuesday.

An unknown number of men and women were at the ranch while authorities completed the search of the gleaming 80-foot-high temple, a cheese-making plant, a cement plant, a school, a doctor's office and housing units. Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday the adults were not being held, but if they left the compound, they could not return while the search continued.

At least two FBI agents were seen entering the back entrance of the temple on Tuesday.

Spokesmen for the FBI and DPS declined comment.

The compound was raided Thursday after the girl called a local family violence shelter March 29 and 30, using someone else's cell phone and speaking quietly to avoid being overheard, McFadden's affidavit said.

The girl said she was not allowed to leave the compound unless she was ill. She told the shelter that her husband would "beat and hurt" her when he got angry, hitting her in the chest and choking her while another woman in the house held her baby. Once, he broke her ribs, she said.

The girl also said her husband sexually assaulted her, and that she was several weeks pregnant. The girl told the shelter her husband went to "the outsiders' world" but she didn't know where.

The girl's husband was not identified in the court documents released Tuesday. But authorities have issued an arrest warrant for church member Dale Barlow, a 50-year-old believed to be in Arizona.

Authorities were looking for documents, family photos or even a family Bible with lists of marriages and children to determine whether the girl was married to Barlow, who was sentenced to jail last year after pleading no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. He was ordered to register as a sex offender for three years while he is on probation.

Authorities were trying to determine the identities and parentage of many of the children; some were unwilling or unable to provide the names of their biological parents or identified multiple mothers.

The boys were groomed to be ready to marry underage girls upon adulthood and engage in sexual activity, resulting in them becoming new "perpetrators," the affidavit said.

Children in the sect were deprived of food and forced to sit in closed closets as a form of discipline, a warrant said.

An FLDS member now living in the Texas Panhandle, Samuel Fischer, objected to the raid.

"It's religious persecution," said Fischer, who moved to a ranch near Lockney with his two wives and 12 of his children from Hildale, Utah, last year.

The Texas investigation is the state's first of FLDS members, but prosecutors in Utah and Arizona have pursued several church members in recent years, including sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving two consecutive sentences of five years to life for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old wed to her cousin in Utah. He awaits trial on other charges in Arizona.

Authorities investigating the Eldorado compound have described FLDS members as cooperative, but the house-by-house search of the temple, factories and living quarters has led to some trouble.

On Monday, 41-year-old Leroy Johnson Steed was arrested on charges of felony tampering with evidence — a day after 19-year-old Levi Barlow Jeffs was arrested on misdemeanor charges of interfering with the duties of a public servant, said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.

He declined to give details on the arrests or how Levi Barlow Jeffs might be related to the FLDS leader.