Authorities Return to Polygamist Ranch Amid Reports More Children May Be Living on Premises

Texas child welfare authorities returned Wednesday to a polygamist sect's ranch in search of children who may have arrived since more than 460 minors living on the property were swept into state custody last month.

Guy Jessop, a guard at the main gate of the dusty ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, greeted two Child Protective Service workers who were accompanied by a sheriff's deputy. The child welfare agents asked whether they could enter the ranch to look for more children.

Jessop denied them access without a search warrant.

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CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said workers went to make initial inquiries and were conferring with law enforcement about how to proceed. She said she did not know what led CPS to believe more children may be at the Yearning For Zion Ranch.

FLDS elder Willie 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 raid, which was conducted with a search warrant.

• Non-Sect Relatives Seek Custody in Texas Polygamy Case

The children were taken because state officials say the sect forces underage girls into marriage and sex. FLDS members deny any abuse.

Willie 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 Willie Jessop, noting that authorities have never produced the alleged teenage girl whose allegations of abuse led to the raid and the removal of all sect children.

Few people were out on the ranch property Wednesday afternoon when Willie Jessop allowed journalists to enter. One woman in a lavender prairie dress could be seen gardening in front of one of the sprawling log cabin-style homes. Another man was moving cows around the ranch's dairy.

The school house, where hundreds of FLDS children now in foster care once attended class, was empty. Calendars there still displayed the month of April, when the raid occurred, and photos of the sect's jailed prophet Warren Jeffs in every room.

Willie Jessop, after talking to CPS officials, predicted CPS would return after the dozens of journalists, who raced 40 miles to the ranch from FLDS custody hearings in San Angelo, left Eldorado.

"They are extremely bothered with the fact y'all are here," he said.

CPS spokesmen did not return calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday afternoon.

In San Angelo, child custody hearings for the children taken in the raid six weeks ago completed their third day. 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, significantly eroding the state's initial count of 31 underage mothers. Others were expected to be reclassified as adults in coming days.

The sect children, ranging from infants to teenagers, were removed en masse from the ranch during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant abused teenage wife. The girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.

On Wednesday, sect members requested 500 to 600 voter registration cards from Schleicher County, something they had 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 with houses, a school, a dairy, woodshops, gardens and an enormous gleaming white temple.

"As residents of the state, we have to take responsibility for part of this," said Willie Jessop. "We were naive enough to believe there was good people in government to protect our rights."

Schleicher County has an estimated 2,800 residents, and the FLDS property is the third-biggest taxpayer in the rural ranching county, accounting for roughly 18 percent of its tax base. But county officials have had no role in the raid, aside from sheriff's deputies assisting state law enforcement.

The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. Members contend they are being persecuted by state officials for their religious beliefs.

Jeffs, who is revered as a prophet, is serving a prison sentence for a Utah conviction of being accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old sect member. He awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges.