When the Polygamists Came to Town

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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On April 3, Mankin was driving past the sheriff's office when he noticed a large number of black vehicles parked there. Curious, he called the dispatcher, but when the deputy started to talk, the phone was taken over by the Texas Rangers. The raid had begun. It had been a tightly held secret, known only to the sheriff. Court papers indicated the action had been prompted by a call from a young girl to a child abuse hotline — the state has yet to confirm they have located her and an FLDS spokesman says she does not exist. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS) then removed 416 children from the ranch, more than anyone anticipated lived at the compound, Mankin said.

Everyone in Eldorado suspected that one day there would be some kind of crisis. When it came, the community responded. The children were initially housed in Eldorado's Baptist Fellowship Hall. "When they first came in the door, wearing long dresses, there were young ones carrying a kid, walking with a toddler and pregnant at the same time," Nikolauk said. "They looked like zombies; there was no expression in their eyes." Rosa Martinez, the owner of a popular local restaurant, filled up a grocery cart with food; a stranger gave left a hundred-dollar bill at the door of the church; Mayor Nikolauk washed dishes inside. Cotton farmer Charles Pfluger and his wife Helen, residents for nearly 40 years, helped as well and were deeply touched. "When those children went out to play you could hear those peals of laughter..." Charles Pfluger says, his voice choking a little and then trailing off. But Pfluger had to resist picking up a little toddler, afraid it might cause an incident. "There was a little boy about two feet tall with that 'puppy look'," he said. "I still see that kid looking at me."

For now, there is relief that the children have been removed, but sadness at the tears of their mothers. "The abuse is not going to stop and that's my fear. My fear is that this will be for naught," Helen Pfluger says. "But any way you look at it the kids get hurt." Meanwhile, the FLDS, usually a closed community, has embarked on a media campaign featuring the grief-stricken mothers along with photographs, taken by the group, of armed Texas officers at the ranch. As of yet, no one has been charged with abuse as the TDPS tries to unravel a maze of family relationships — many of the children have one of four common FLDS surnames: Jeffs, Jessop, Steed and Barlow. Sources also say the children and mothers have been misleading the investigators by giving different names and ages with each interview.

The scope of the crisis can be seen in the latest edition of the Success, in a stark page and a half black-and-white public legal notice, posted by the Schleicher County Clerk. It is two long, soulless lists of case numbers and names that serve as a cryptogram to the story. The public notice informs the parents of the 416 children taken by the TDFPS that they are being sued by the state — the 136 listed lawsuits begin with case "2779, in the interest of baby girl Jessop #26600765" and run on, some listing children by their full names, others with just a first name ("in the interest of Freddie #26609430, a child") and some with no names at all, ending with a catchall lawsuit "in the interest of 330 children from the YFZ Ranch." Like everyone else, Mayor Nikolauk is pondering tomorrow. "We are all asking the same question," he says. "What's next?"

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