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Police Comb Polygamist Ranch After Girls' Removal

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An update now into the investigation into accounts of underage marriage and sexual abuse at a polygamist ranch in West Texas. Texas authorities say they've concluded their search of the sprawling complex. The FBI has been looking for evidence as well, and yesterday lawyers for the polygamist group gave up their attempts to have a judge stop the inquiry.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn was at court proceedings in San Angelo, Texas and has this report.

WADE GOODWYN: Gary Goldstein, the lawyer representing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had hoped to compel Texas law enforcement officials to end their search of the polygamist ranch. But by the time of the hearing, his motions were moot. That's because the FBI had already moved in that morning on the FLDS complex with its own search warrants to conduct a federal investigation.

Goldstein protested against the dynamic entry used by law enforcement officials to gain access to the temple at the center of the complex, comparing it to police rifling through the Vatican. For nearly a week, officials have been combing the ranch for evidence of sexual abuse and say several young teenagers who were removed by the state were pregnant.

Tela Mange is a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Ms. TELA MANGE (Spokesperson, Texas Department of Public Safety): Once we have completed that, then we move on to the second part of the investigation, which is looking at and evaluating the evidence that was seized.

GOODWYN: Three people were arrested at the ranch, two for interfering with the police and one for destroying evidence. Nevertheless, given the tragedy that occurred at the Branch Davidian compound, where dozens of Davidians and four ATF agents died still looming large in the minds of officers, Mange says they're pleased with how this confrontation has gone so far.

Ms. MANGE: The residents were calm. Things, you know, were sometimes calm but tense, which is understandable. Having a search warrant served on your residence and on your property is not a happy occasion. And they were letting us know that it was not pleasant for them. And we understand that. We were trying to be as respectful as we could, but we still had a job to do.

GOODWYN: Texas law enforcement and child welfare officials have searched nearly every inch of the 1,700-acre property, including the temple. Photographs, computer hard drives, Bibles with family registries inside, all were confiscated as possible evidence.

Lawyers for the group asked for and were granted the appointment of a special court master who will help sift through all that was confiscated, separating out everything that is not possible evidence in the case.

State District Judge Barbara Walther, known for her dry wit, sometimes had the courtroom erupting in laughter, which prompted members of the FLDS to put their heads in their hands in despair.

According to court documents, the law enforcement action began after multiple phone calls by a 16-year-old girl to a family shelter in San Angelo. The girl described how she was beaten and sexually abused by her spiritual husband, who she said was 49 years old. She said she'd already given birth to one child who was eight months old and was pregnant a second time. The girl spoke of her desire to escape, but doubted she could and was frightened that if caught she'd be locked away with no food. Though she phoned the shelter on several occasions, she still has not been located by authorities.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Angelo, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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