ELDORADO, Texas – Child welfare authorities returned once again to a Texas polygamous sect's ranch, but this time they never made it past the gate.
Twice on Wednesday, Child Protective Services workers escorted by a sheriff's deputy asked to be allowed back onto the Yearning For Zion Ranch to search for any children who may have shown up since officials took more than 460 children into custody six weeks ago.
They told a guard and a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the ranch, they wanted to check on reports of more children.
The response? Not without a warrant.
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"The people they are looking for, I cannot produce them, because they don't exist," said Willie Jessop, a sect elder. But "if they bring in their heavy law enforcement and raid us again, I cannot stop them."
Child welfare spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the agency wanted to investigate reports of children who may have arrived at the ranch in the weeks since the children were taken and put in foster care.
The child welfare agency could seek a court order to force ranch residents to allow officials in, but Meisner declined to say whether the agency would seek one.
Jessop said he wasn't certain whether children were on the 1,700-acre ranch. He added that if there were, they would have arrived with parents who came to comfort relatives after the April 3 raid, which was conducted with a search warrant.
The children were taken because state officials say the sect forces underage girls into marriage and sex. FLDS members deny any abuse.
Jessop said ranch residents would allow authorities to investigate any legitimate claims of abuse. He briefly spoke to a sheriff's deputy who came back Wednesday evening and left again without searching the premises.
"If they have an honest complaint, we'll be honest, but we were lied to," said Jessop, arguing that authorities have never produced the alleged teenage girl whose allegations of abuse first led to the raid and the removal of all sect children.
Jessop did allow journalists to enter ranch property Wednesday afternoon. One woman in a lavender prairie dress was gardening in front of one of the sprawling log cabin-style homes. Another man was moving cows around the ranch's dairy.
No children were visible on the grounds.
The school house, where hundreds of FLDS children once attended class, was empty. Calendars still displayed the month of April and photos of the sect's jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs, were in every room.
In San Angelo, child custody hearings for the children taken in the raid completed their third day Wednesday. Five judges have been conducting what is expected to be three weeks of hearings on what the parents must do to regain custody of their children.
The custody case, one of the largest in U.S. history, has been marked by chaos from the beginning. So far, at least eight mothers initially put into foster care as underage girls have been reclassified as adults, eroding the state's initial count of 31 underage mothers. Others were expected to be reclassified as adults in coming days.
In one sign that sect members may be thinking of flexing their political muscle, members on Wednesday requested up to 600 voter registration cards from Schleicher County.
That is something they have not done in the five years since the 1,700-acre ranch was transformed from a small game ranch to a $20.5 million self-contained community.
Schleicher County has an estimated 2,800 residents, and the sect property is the third-biggest taxpayer in the rural ranching county, accounting for roughly 18 percent of its tax base. County officials had no role in the raid, aside from sheriff's deputies assisting state law enforcement.
"As residents of the state, we have to take responsibility for part of this," said Jessop. "We were naive enough to believe there was good people in government to protect our rights."