Officials defend lag in moving against polygamists
Texas authorities say their hands were tied legally
SAN ANGELO, Texas - It was no secret that a polygamist sect that built a compound in the West Texas desert believed in marrying off underage girls to older men. And the sheriff had an informant for four years who was feeding him information about life inside the sect.
But authorities say their hands were tied until last week, when they obtained the legal grounds to move against the group.
The trigger for the raid was a hushed phone call from a terrified 16-year-old girl to a family violence shelter to report that her 50-year-old husband had beaten and raped her.
State troopers put into action the plan they had on the shelf to enter the 1,700-acre compound, and 416 children, most of them girls, were swept into state custody because of suspicions that they were being sexually and physically abused.
Yesterday, state and local law enforcement authorities defended their decision to leave the sect alone for four years after it moved in.
"We are aware that this group is capable of" sexually abusing girls, Sheriff David Doran said. "But there again, this is the United States. We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."
Doran said it was not until after the raid began that he learned that the sect was, in fact, marrying off underage girls at the compound and had a bed in its soaring limestone temple where the girls were required to immediately consummate their marriages.
Also, investigators say a number of teenage girls there are pregnant.
Authorities in Texas suspected there would be trouble ever since members of the renegade Mormon splinter group - the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - bought an exotic game ranch in Eldorado in 2004 and began building the ranch.
Warren Jeffs, the sect's prophet and spiritual leader at its longtime headquarters in the dusty, side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., was charged in 2005 and 2006 with forcing underage girls into marriages there. He was convicted in September in Utah of being an accomplice to rape and is serving up to life in prison.
Doran had been making occasional visits to the Eldorado compound - he even called to tell members of Jeffs's capture in 2006 - but he said he saw nothing to warrant a criminal investigation. Most of those milling around the compound would scatter when he and a Texas Ranger visited, he said.
"You can only press someone so far without having a criminal investigation going on," the sheriff said. "This group doesn't openly talk and they do not openly answer questions."
Doran said he had an informant who was "instrumental in teaching me the group's ways."
But he declined to say whether the informant, a former sect member, was in Texas, or Utah or Arizona.