SAN ANGELO, Texas – An attorney for polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs says Texas authorities may have been duped by a fake phone tip into raiding a West Texas ranch occupied by Jeffs followers.
"I smelled a rat from the beginning," attorney Michael Piccarreta told The Arizona Republic, referring to the call from a 16-year-old girl at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints commune in Eldorado that prompted the raid. "I think the Texas authorities need to make a careful analysis of whether they have been part of a ruse."
A spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services told The Associated Press Saturday that they believe the call was genuine.
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"Obviously we do," spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales said. "We don't have reason to believe that it was a prank or a ruse in any way."
Authorities have said their April 3 raid on the Eldorado ranch came after a girl's whispered telephone call for help to a family violence shelter. Texas has since taken legal custody of 416 children on suspicion that they were being sexually and physically abused.
Jeffs is president of the FLDS, a renegade offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church that practices polygamy. He is jailed in Arizona pending trial on charges stemming with marriages he allegedly arranged between underage girls and older men. He was convicted on similar charges in Utah last year and sentenced to two prison terms of five years to life.
Piccarreta on Friday questioned whether the call may have been a ploy by an FLDS enemy. He said his suspicions increased upon learning that Child Protective Services in Arizona recently got a similar report about a teenager claiming to be in Colorado City, Ariz.
Arizona investigators went to the community and conducted interviews but were unable to locate the girl or verify the account. They did not remove any children from homes.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said Friday the state's job is to pursue any child-abuse allegation.
"It would be unfortunate if somebody manufactured this story," Goddard said of the Arizona tip. "We're not going to start there and say this is another activist call. We are going to investigate, the way we did on this one."
Flora Jessop, who left the FLDS church years ago and leads the nonprofit Child Protection Project, told The Republic Friday that she submitted information to Arizona authorities after receiving calls from a pregnant teenager in Colorado City.
"I have been speaking to a little girl who has my guts in knots," Jessop said. "It is a very credible, very believable, very abused little girl."
She said she was not surprised by Piccarreta's comments. "That's what good attorneys do. They try to discredit the victim to free the predators," Jessop 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 found to be practicing plural marriage.
Centered in the twin border towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, the sect has established outposts in several other states and Canada in recent years. One is the commune in Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo.
Utah and Arizona have targeted the FLDS church with enforcement efforts for several years, prosecuting men who marry underage girls, but there have been no large-scale raids.
Goddard and Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said laws in both states prevent such action. They noted that polygamous families in Colorado City and Hildale live in a large community, while the Eldorado group resides in a single complex.
"It's hard for us to second-guess what's happening there because it's such a different circumstance," Murphy said.
• What's Next for the Polygamist Compound Children?