ELDORADO, Texas — Child welfare officials following up on an abuse complaint took custody of 18 girls Friday who lived at a secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.
A total of 52 girls, ages 6 months to 17 years, were bused away Friday to be interviewed, and 18 were immediately taken into state custody, said Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner. No arrests had been made.
Meisner said welfare officials were looking for foster homes for the girls, most of whom have rarely been outside the insular world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were being housed Friday at a civic center, she said.
"We're dealing with children that aren't accustomed to the outside world, so we're trying to be very sensitive to their needs," Meisner said.
The investigation at the YFZ Ranch — a walled-off complex just outside the town of Eldorado that is anchored by a towering white temple — came as welcome news to local officials, who had complained for years about the religious sect hunkered there.
"We know they're violating the law, but someone has to raise their hand and testify, and until that happens, we don't have anything," said James Doyle, a local justice of the peace who has flown frequently over the compound in his private plane.
Authorities had interviewed about half of the girls since arriving Thursday evening at the remote compound with law enforcers, she said. Interviews were expected to continue over the weekend.
The investigation began with a call alleging physical abuse of a 16-year-old girl living there, Meisner said.
On Friday afternoon, the Department of Public Safety officials began executing a search warrant.
The warrant seeks records dealing with the birth of children to a 16-year-old and any records listing a marriage between a 50-year-old man and the girl, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times, which cited court records released late Friday in Tom Green County. Prosecutors in Tom Green, a larger county north of Eldorado, were handling the case.
An arrest warrant was issued, but the suspect had not been located Friday evening, said spokeswoman Tela Mange.
"We have been working very closely with the adults at the ranch, and they have been assisting us in our search," she said.
The ranch covers roughly 1,700 acres north of the two stoplight town, down a narrow paved road. State officials said they did not know how many people lived at the retreat, but local officials in 2006 put the number at about 150, as members of the reclusive church moved from a community on the Arizona-Utah line.
The congregation, known as FLDS, been led by Jeffs since his father's death in 2002. It is one of several groups that split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890.
In November, Jeffs 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.
In Arizona, Jeffs is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.