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Sect members say life 'normal' on polygamous church ranch

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

ELDORADO, Texas —  Members of the embattled polygamist sect said Wednesday life was relatively normal on their West Texas ranch at the center of one of the nation's largest child-custody cases.

The Yearning for Zion ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that state authorities raided two weeks ago in search of a 16-year-old girl who claimed her husband beat and raped her.

Child welfare officials have removed all 416 children living there from the custody of their parents. The 16-year-old has yet to be found.

Members gave a few tours to show their lives _ isolated from what they regard as a hostile and sinful outside world _ center on family and faith.

A gleaming, white limestone temple is the center of the 1,700-acre ranch with large, log-style homes, a school, a dairy, a rock quarry and a community garden planted with vegetables, fruit trees and a grape arbor.

Set back some three miles from a state highway, the ranch sits behind two locked gates, which outsiders and excommunicated members suggest is a symbol of the control church elders have over the lives of the faithful.

No one who lives there calls it a compound.

"All of us say the ranch. It's the ranch. It's home," said Rozie, a 23-year-old married member of the sect. Members won't allow their last names to be used because they worry about the effect on their children in state custody.

Church members say their daily lives don't differ that much from their Eldorado neighbors.

Although they grow much of their own food, the members still shop at Costco and Wal-Mart. A ranch school using an accredited home schooling curriculum teaches kids from first through 12th grade. Women say modesty dictates their custom of donning 19th Century-style long dresses, and say they were not forced to marry.

A tour inside of one the homes, given by one of sect's mothers to CNN, showed a modern kitchen with women baking bread from wheat ground at the ranch. The plain dining area included dozens of chairs arranged at long folding tables, and bedrooms included multiple bunks and a row of twin beds spaced closely together.

"Can I leave the premises? Yes," said Nancy, a 40-year-old mother of four, who rises daily at 4:30 a.m. "We have a post office box. We get mail and we take the children to the orthodontist."

Families meet daily for religious devotions, prayer and singing. The community also gathers for church meetings on Sundays.

"It is lifeless here without our kids around here" said Dan, 24, whose wife remains housed in the San Angelo Coliseum complex 45 miles to the north with their 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

On Thursday, a custody hearing starts in the Tom Green County Courthouse to decide whether the children, who range in age from six months to 17 years, will be in permanent state custody. State officials alleged a pattern of abuse by adults, including marriages between young girls to older men.

Sect members deny children were abused.

"It's the furtherest thing away from what we do here," Dan said of the abuse allegations. "There's nothing that's more disliked and more trained against.

Under Texas law, the Child Protective Services, an attorney for each child and attorneys for the parents must be given a chance to weigh in on whether the children should remain in state custody.

Typically, each child also is given a separate hearing, but given the number of cases, it's likely the judge will have the state, the children's attorneys and the parents' attorneys make consolidated presentations, at least initially, said Harper Estes, the president-elect of the state bar.

"You can't go one-by-one," Estes said.

A parade of attorneys appointed to represent each child _ many volunteers recruited by the bar association _ met with the children being housed in shelters and filed notices with the court on Wednesday. A separate group of attorneys arrived at the compound in Eldorado to meet with their parents.

The children have been held in shelters, first in Eldorado and then in San Angelo since they were removed from the sprawling compound nearly two weeks ago. All but the youngest children are being cared for by state workers and child care providers.

The FLDS came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona border. The faith practices polygamy in arranged marriages and believe the lifestyle brings exaltation in heaven.

The sect traces its religious roots to the early theology of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which now denounces polygamy and excommunicates members found practicing it.


Associated Press writer Michelle Roberts contributed to this report from San Angelo.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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