The US police have launched a massive investigation into life under the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
More than 400 children, mostly girls in pioneer dresses, were swept into state custody in what authorities described Monday as the largest child-welfare operation in Texas history.
The daylong raid on the sprawling compound built by now-jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs was sparked by a 16-year-old girl's call to authorities that she was being abused and that girls as young as 14 and 15 were being forced into marriages with much older men.
Authorities are looking for evidence that the girl, who allegedly gave birth at 15, was married to a 50-year-old, and for records related to other mothers aged 17 and younger. Even with their parents' permission, Texas law forbids girls younger than 16 to marry.
Dressed in home-sewn, ankle-length dresses with their hair pinned up in braids, some 133 women left the Yearning for Zion Ranch of their own volition along with the children.
State troopers were holding an unknown number of men in the compound until investigators finished executing a house-to-house search of the ranch, which includes a cheese-making plant, a cement plant and several large housing units. They initially had difficulty getting access to the 80-foot white limestone temple that rises out of the brown scrub, but were searching it Monday.
"In my opinion, this is the largest endeavor we've ever been involved in in the state of Texas," said Children's Protective Services spokesman Marleigh Meisner, who said the agency was also involved in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.
Five miles off the highway, beyond a double gate, the group's members lived lives that were isolated even for the scruffy West Texas prairie. Their 1,700-acre ranch is like its own city, with a gleaming temple, doctor's office, school and even factories.
"Once you go into the compound, you don't ever leave it," said Carolyn Jessop, who was one of the wives of the alleged leader of the Eldorado complex, but who left the sect before it began moving to Texas in 2004.
Jessop, author of the polygamy memoir "Escape," said the women dedicated so much time to raising children and their chores because the community emphasized self-sufficiency: Members believe the apocalypse is near, and they will have to start over when the world is destroyed.
They were not allowed to wear red — the color Jeffs said belonged to Jesus — and were not allowed to cut their hair.
They "were born into this," said Jessop, 40. "They have no concept of mainstream society, and their mothers were born into and have no concept of mainstream culture. Their grandmothers were born into it."
Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said each child would get an advocate and an attorney. But she said they would have a tough time adjusting to modern life if they are permanently separated from their families.
Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said the criminal investigation was still under way, and that charges would be filed if investigators determined children were abused.
Still uncertain is the location of the girl whose call initiated the raid. Authorities were looking for documents, family photos or even a family Bible with lists of marriages and children to determine whether the girl was married to convicted sex offender Dale Barlow.
Barlow was sentenced to jail last year after pleading no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. He was ordered to register as a sex offender for three years while he is on probation, news agency AP reports.
Authorities hoped to determine whether the teenager was among the church members being interviewed at Fort Concho, a 150-year-old fort built to protect frontier settlements.
Attorneys for the church and church leaders filed motions asking a judge to quash the search on constitutional grounds, saying state authorities didn't have enough evidence and that the warrants were too broad. A hearing on their motion was scheduled for Wednesday in San Angelo.
"The chief concern for everyone at this point is the welfare of the women and children," said FLDS attorneys Patrick Peranteau. He declined further comment before Wednesday's hearing.
State troopers arrested one man on a misdemeanor charge of interfering with the duties of a public servant during the search warrant, Mange said.
"For the most part, residents at the ranch have been cooperative. However, because of some of the diplomatic efforts in regards to the residents, the process of serving the search warrants is taking longer than usual," said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.
Attorneys for the church and church leaders said Barlow was in Colorado City, Arizona, and had been in contact with law enforcement officials there. Telephone messages left by The Associated Press for Colorado City authorities were not immediately returned Monday.
The FLDS church, headed by Jeffs after his father's death in 2002, broke away from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
The group is concentrated along the Arizona-Utah line but several enclaves have been built elsewhere, including in Texas. In 2003, the church paid $700,000 for the Eldorado property, a former exotic animal ranch, and began building the compound as authorities in Arizona and Utah began increasingly scrutinizing the group.
Only the 80-foot-high white temple can be seen from Eldorado, a town of fewer than 2,000 surrounded by sheep ranches nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio.
Jeffs is jailed in Kingman, Arizona, where he awaits trial for four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives.
In November, he was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001.
The investigation prompted by the girl's call last week was the first in Texas involving the sect.