SAN ANGELO, Texas – For four frustrating years, an informant fed Sheriff David Doran information about the polygamist sect that built a compound in the West Texas desert not far from his office in Eldorado.
But those milling about the 1,700-acre compound would scatter whenever he and a Texas Ranger visited, leaving them without the concrete evidence they needed to open a criminal investigation, Doran said Thursday as authorities defended their decision to leave the sect alone after it moved in 2004.
"I have no regrets because we never received any outcry, a complaint. There was no evidence of illegal activity nor an offense in plain view," he said. "You can always suspect something, but until you get something that puts you on that property, there's not a whole lot you can do."
A raid was finally triggered April 3, after a family violence shelter received a hushed phone call from a terrified 16-year-old girl saying her 50-year-old husband had beaten and raped her.
State troopers put into action the plan they had on the shelf to enter the compound, and 416 children, most of them girls, were swept into state custody on suspicions that they were being sexually and physically abused.
Doran said it was not until after the raid began that he learned that the sect was marrying off underage girls at the compound and had a bed in its soaring limestone temple where the girls were required to immediately consummate their marriages. A number of teenage girls are pregnant, investigators said.
It had been no secret that the sect believed in marrying off underage girls to older men, and authorities believed the group was capable of abuse, Doran said.
"But there again, this is the United States," he said. "We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."
Had there been one earlier, authorities would have acted as they did last week, Doran said. "We would have done it in a heartbeat," he said.
Authorities in Texas suspected there would be trouble ever since members of the renegade Mormon splinter group — the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — bought an exotic game ranch and began building.
Warren Jeffs, the sect's prophet and spiritual leader at its longtime headquarters in the dusty, side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., was charged in 2005 and 2006 with forcing underage girls into marriages. He was convicted in September in Utah of being an accomplice to rape and is serving up to life in prison.
Doran had made occasional visits to the compound — he even called to tell members of Jeffs' capture in 2006 — but he said he saw nothing to warrant a criminal investigation.
"You can only press someone so far without having a criminal investigation going on," he said, adding that members aren't forthcoming when talking to outsiders.
Doran declined to say whether the informant, a former sect member, was in Texas, or Utah or Arizona.
Barry Caver, a Texas Ranger who sometimes went with Doran to the compound, said a general welfare check wouldn't have produced much because they could talk to just three or four main people there.
Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott said state authorities handled the case properly.
"You cannot go in and bust in someone's house if there's not probable cause to do so," Abbott said.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has written about polygamy, said even Jeffs' conviction was not enough to barge in on the Eldorado sect.
"They would need a contemporary statement or evidence at trial that an individual at the (Texas) compound is practicing polygamy," Turley said.
Officials still have not been able to identify the teen who made the call from the children being held at two sites in Texas.
The man alleged to be the 16-year-old's husband, Dale Barlow, is a registered sex offender who pleaded no contest to having sex with a minor in Arizona.
"I do not know this girl that they keep asking about," he told Utah's Desert Morning News on Wednesday. "And I have not been to Texas since I was a young man back in 1977."