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Police Search for Missing Sect Teen; 533 Women, Children Are in Custody

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posted by: Nina Sparano
n.sparano@krdo.com

ELDORADO, TX - As many as 533 women and children were removed from the West Texas compound built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, authorities said today.

An unknown number of men remain at the retreat in Eldorado and will not be permitted to leave until authorities complete a house-by-house search throughout the 1,700-acre compound, Texas Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said.

"This is not about numbers. This is about children, children in imminent risk of harm," she said.

The children removed from the compound ranged in age from infants to 17-year-olds, she said.

"In my opinion, this is the largest endeavor we've ever been involved in in the state of Texas," Meisner said, adding that she was also involved in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco that left at least 86 people dead.

The original 200 women and children who were removed during the weekend are secure in nearby San Angelo, but officials said most are afraid to speak candidly about what happened inside their church.

Texas state police arrested one person early Monday during their search of a sect's compound but said he was not Dale Barlow, the 50-year-old man they are still hunting.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger told The Associated Press that he had no further information on the man who was arrested. Barlow is listed in warrants as being sought in connection with the marriage of an underage girl.

Meanwhile, Texas authorities struggled Monday to persuade the children removed from the group compound during the weekend to give them any information about what went on there.

"When children live in a pretty secluded environment and they're as sheltered as these children, it's very difficult to get them to talk to you and to open up. If you can get them to a neutral place, they're a lot more prone to answer you truthfully," Debra Brown told the AP. Brown is with a local child advocacy group representing the children in legal proceedings.

Police remained unsure if the teenage girl whose alleged crisis hotline call resulted in a raid on the compound was in custody. State troopers armed with a search warrant raided the ranch Friday to look for evidence of a marriage between Barlow and the teen.

The girl allegedly had a baby at 15, and under Texas law girls younger than 16 are unable to marry, even with parental consent, according to the AP.

Prosecutor Allison Palmer told the AP that other law enforcement agencies "know where [Barlow] is and have talked to him, but our investigators have not."

Barlow's probation officer, Bill Loader, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in Arizona. Last year, Barlow was sentenced to jail after pleading no contest to a conspiracy to commit sexual misconduct with a minor and was ordered to register as a sex offender for three years while he remained on probation, the AP reported.

The search warrant allowed officers to look for marriage records or any other evidence linking the teen to Barlow and the baby, including computer drives, CDs, DVDs and photos.

Police are questioning the women and children taken from the compound in the hopes that the missing teen girl is among them.

"I am confident that this girl does indeed exist, and I am confident that the allegations that she brought forth are accurate," said Marleigh Meisner at the Texas Child Protective Services.

Complicating the situation is the fact that everyone in the group is affiliated with convicted polygamist Warren Jeffs and claims to be related to one another. They share the same names, and officials are having a difficult time determining a connection to the missing girl.

Authorities don't know which, if any, of the girls may be incest victims.

Former sect members say it may be difficult to get the evacuated women to talk. When she was 18, Carolyn Jessop was married to a 50-year-old before she later escaped with her eight children.

"This is a very difficult thing, because [of] the mind control. I mean, you're dealing with multiple levels of control. The idea that you'll go to hell if you speak out, the idea of losing friends, family, relatives. I mean, it's the eternal consequences, but there's also very real physical consequences you'll face today if you speak out," Jessop said. "Then the other thing that these girls would have to do to come forward is they would have to trust the person they were talking to that this person would be able to protect them, and that's a tremendous thing."

Jessop, who was married to leader Merrill Jessop before she made her daring overnight escape five years ago, said she believes she saw TV footage of one of her stepdaughters being loaded onto the awaiting buses but hasn't had any contact with any of the women.

"The situation is just basically in lockdown. There's only been four of us even allowed who have family members inside to speak to officials," she said. "So far they are not allowing anyone to speak to the people that they've removed."

Jessop added that the group had a history of physical and emotional abuse.

She said that leaders were allowed to beat children deemed unruly, and that her ex-husband used a specific form of water torture to break rebellious children.

"There was a tremendous amount of violence toward children," Jessop said. "He would hold their head under a tap of running water when they were crying."

It was a girl's call to a crisis hot line alleging physical abuse by her 50-year-old husband that brought about the weekend raid, where leaders initially refused to let authorities enter and police worried the situation could escalate. But overnight on Saturday, they began letting police in and buses soon whisked away women and children.

The evacuations continued into Sunday on the 1,700-acre farm that Jeffs' followers built to seal themselves off from the outside world.

The location had everything it needs to sustain itself, including water and sewer, crops and an irrigation system.

Jeffs, the group's leader and a self-proclaimed prophet, was sentenced in November to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison in Utah as an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage between then-14-year-old Elissa Wall and her 19-year-old cousin.

Today Jeffs, who had an estimated 70 wives, sits inside an Arizona jail awaiting prosecution on separate charges.

 

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