ELDORADO, Texas - More than 400 children, mostly girls in pioneer dresses, were swept into state custody from a polygamist sect in what authorities described Monday as the largest child-welfare operation in Texas history.
The dayslong 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.
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 1,700-acre property, which includes a medical facility, numerous large housing units and an 80-foot white limestone temple that rises discordantly out of the brown scrub.
'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 she was also involved in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.
The members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints spent their days raising numerous children, tilling small gardens and doing chores. But at least one former resident says life was not some idyllic replica of 19th-century life.
'Once you go into the compound, you don't ever leave it,' said Carolyn Jessop, one of the wives of the alleged leader of the Eldorado complex. Jessop left with her eight children before the sect moved to Texas.
Jessop said the community emphasized self-sufficiency because they believed the apocalypse was near.
The women were not allowed to wear red - the color Jeffs said belonged to Jesus - and were not allowed to cut their hair. They were also kept isolated from the outside world.
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.'
Meisner said each child will get an advocate and an attorney but predicted that if they end up permanently separated from their families, the sheltered children would have a tough acclimation to modern life.
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. She allegedly had a child at 15, and authorities were looking for documents, family photos or even a family Bible with lists of marriages and children to demonstrate the girl was married to Dale Barlow, 50.
Under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.
The church members were being held at Fort Concho, a 150-year-old fort built to protect frontier settlements, to be interviewed about the 16-year-old girl and whether, in fact, the teenager was among them.