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Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Prepares for Long Legal Battle After Children Seized from Compound

Members of a racist cult, infuriated that their children were seized by Texas authorities, may fight legal battle 'tooth and nail'

This April, Texas police raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) compound and took more than 460 children to investigate their possible physical and sexual abuse. (Erich Schlegel)

When leaders of a racist, polygamous cult purchased 1,691 acres for a compound in rural Texas, they hoped to retreat further from the government and the press, which increasingly were shining a spotlight on some of their more unsavory activities.

Only it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, their so-called prophet, Warren Jeffs, was convicted last year of being an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage involving a 14-year-old girl. Then, in early April, state authorities took more than 460 children from the group's secluded Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, a small town in central Texas. Shortly afterward, a judge ruled that the children could remain in state custody, at least temporarily, because Texas officials had shown they were in imminent danger of abuse or neglect by their parents. The children, who were sent to foster homes, were to receive individual hearings to decide if the state retains controgl of them or if they can return to their parents.

Though the children's fates had yet to be determined at press time, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — which split from the Mormon Church years ago — could grow even stronger as it fights what it considers ongoing harassment by outsiders. "This is a major, major blow and will be seen as the ultimate persecution," said John Dougherty, who has written extensively about FLDS. "This will not do anything to weaken them. It will just make them more determined to move forward."

The raid was triggered by a phone call to a Texas domestic abuse hotline. The caller identified herself as a 16-year-old girl who was being physically and sexually abused by her 50-year-old husband. While the report is now believed to be a hoax, child welfare workers say they've uncovered other examples of abuse at the compound, including marriages between underage girls and older men. Of the 53 girls ages 14 to 17 who were taken from the ranch, 31 either have children or are pregnant, state officials said. Texas law generally forbids girls under 18 from having sex with an adult. As of press time, no criminal charges had been filed against any ranch member in connection with the alleged abuse.

For its part, the sect denies that abuse occurred and has enlisted attorneys to challenge the removal of its children. "They will fight this thing tooth and nail. They're not just going to give up," Dougherty said.

While the group is best known for practicing polygamy more than 100 years after it was outlawed by the Mormon Church, FLDS is also extremely racist. According to Jeffs, "The black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth." He has blasted the Mormon Church for allowing blacks to become priests, saying it "became the great and terrible church on the earth" and will be destroyed by God.

As for sexual relations between men, Jeffs called that "the worst evil act you can do, next to murder. It is like murder. Whenever people commit that sin, then the Lord destroys them."

Jeffs has claimed some 10,000 followers, most of whom live in the Short Creek community of Colorado City, Ariz., and neighboring Hilldale, Utah. Nonetheless, the sect's impact extends beyond its adherents: An investigation of the cult by Dougherty, then a reporter for the Phoenix New Times, detailed how FLDS leaders used taxpayer dollars, intended for city services, to help finance the church. He also found — as did a major 2005 exposé of the cult in these pages — that FLDS marriages between relatives were causing babies to be born with an extremely rare and disabling genetic disease. The refusal of FLDS members to stop inbreeding had troubling financial implications along with ethical ones, since the state of Arizona was helping pay for medical care and other assistance for children with the disease.

In addition, an investigation this spring by McClatchy Newspapers revealed that tax dollars were flowing to a business run by an FLDS leader. The business, NewEra Manufacturing in Las Vegas, had been awarded $1.2 million in military contracts and a $900,000 federal loan. In a 2005 affidavit filed as part of a civil lawsuit, a former NewEra employee said the company was funneling $50,000 to $100,000 of its monthly profits to the FLDS or Jeffs.

Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs hoped to escape that kind of unwanted attention when he moved several hundred of his most loyal followers to the compound in Eldorado. But in 2006, he was apprehended after nearly two years on the lam and a stint on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. A Utah judge sentenced him to two consecutive prison terms of five years to life for forcing Elissa Wall, then 14, to marry her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is currently imprisoned in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial on charges of arranging two other marriages involving underage girls. He continues to run FLDS from prison.

In fact, Jeffs' imprisonment made him a martyr in the eyes of his followers — and they will now see him as an even greater prophet than before, Dougherty said. They will regard the ranch raid as fulfilling their leaders' predictions of further persecution by outsiders. In addition, Dougherty said FLDS members no doubt see an explanation for their ordeal in the race of the 33-year-old woman whom police have linked to the phone call that touched off the raid. (The woman, Rozita Swinton, is black.) "That's just more support [for the idea] that the devil is at hand and that's why this is happening," he said.

The case is bound to provoke a legal debate about whether the state of Texas was justified in separating all the children from their parents and not just teenage girls or those on the cusp of puberty, Dougherty said. During the hearing in April, the state contended that the children were living in a climate that fostered abuse by teaching girls to accept sex with much older men and boys to eventually take child brides. However, no evidence presented at the hearings suggested that young children were directly harmed. "I think there are going to be all sorts of constitutional questions raised about the right of the state to intervene," Dougherty said.

Over the years, the polygamist cult threw out many of its young boys so that there would be plenty of women for the remaining men to marry, leading to a whole colony of "lost boys" like Richard Black, who was excommunicated and forced to leave his family at age 15 for watching the film "Scary Movie."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, which observed the custody hearing, has already said the rights of FLDS members may have been violated. "We recognize that this balancing act is difficult, but we are concerned that government may not be complying with the constitution or the laws of Texas in the execution of its mandate, from how the raids were conducted to whether the current process protects basic rights," said Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, in a statement.

The situation unfolding in Texas is eerily similar to a raid on Short Creek in 1953, which was also prompted by reports that men were taking minors as wives. In Short Creek, law enforcement officials took protective custody of more than 300 women and children and arrested nearly 40 men, according to the Deseret News. The incident garnered extensive media coverage, most of it highly critical of the state's actions. The raid ended the political career of Arizona Gov. John Howard Pyle, but did nothing to damage the FLDS. None of the men were prosecuted, and everyone who'd been taken from Short Creek ultimately returned. FLDS followers saw the incident as a trial they had to endure for their faith — one from which they emerged victorious.

FLDS members view the Eldorado raid in a similar light. Just as they did more than half a century ago, they are coming together to fight the unwelcome intrusion from outsiders. While their Texas outpost may not have provided quite the refuge they were hoping for, it's doubtful they will abandon it anytime soon.

"They've invested a tremendous amount of time and money into building their compound down there," Dougherty said. "I find it hard to believe they're going to walk away."