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Texas custody hearing: Cult expert, former FLDS member consulted before raid

Published April 17, 2008 7:29 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SAN ANGELO, Texas - A Texas Child Protective Services investigations supervisor who led the initial foray into a polygamous sect's ranch testified today that she had first consulted a psychiatrist who has done extensive research into religious cults and the sister of the Utah woman whose testimony led to the imprisonment of sect leader Warren S. Jeffs.

Angie Voss said in a San Angelo court today that she talked to psychiatrist Bruce Perry of Texas and Rebecca Musser. She is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose West Texas ranch was the subject of a days-long raid earlier this month.

Perry has worked with children from the Branch Davidian sect, whose compound in Waco, Texas, was burned down during an FBI siege that claimed the lives of 76 people, 21 of them children.

Musser is the sister of Elissa Wall, who testified in a Utah court last year that she was 14 when Jeffs arranged for her to marry her 19-year-old cousin over her objections. Jeffs was convicted of rape by an accomplice and sentenced to prison. He also awaits trial in Arizona on other charges of arranging marriages for teen-aged girls.

Wall also has a lawsuit against Jeffs pending in Utah court. Musser, a plural wife of the late Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' father, also testified in the Utah trial.

Earlier today, Voss testified that on the first night of what would become a days-long raid, her team of child protection investigators interviewed several girls under the age of 17 at the FLDS ranch under "intimidating" circumstances.

Voss' testimony came during a hearing to decide the fate of 416 FLDS children taken into state custody on grounds that they were, or could be, subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

She said she and 11 Children Protective Services investigators, accompanied by law enforcement officers, went to the YFZ Ranch at about 9 p.m. on April 3 in response to earlier calls a 16-year-old mother there had made to a domestic violence shelter.

FLDS men met them at the ranch gate, where the investigators asked about the girl, who had given her name as Sarah. The men shook their heads and said she wasn't there, Voss said.

Still, the men escorted five investigators and some officers to a schoolhouse, where the state workers took separate rooms and asked to see all girls ages 17 and younger, Voss said, and the men brought in about 15 girls.

While the FLDS men, including their leader, Merrill Jessop, were "cordial and respectful," Voss said she felt intimidated. "I was afraid," she said.

Asked about the Sarah who called the shelter, the girls said they didn't know which one she was among several Sarahs on the ranch, Voss said. Later, though, some of the girls said they knew the Sarah investigators were seeking, but hadn't seen her for about a week.

Asked about their ages and parents, some girls said they didn't know their birth dates or who lived in their homes, Voss said. However, the girls did say the standard household consisted of one man and several women and children, she said.

Voss provided investigative reports on girls who said they were mothers. Attorney Amy Hennington, who represents some of the fathers, then objected. She argued it had been unfair to question the girls because they didn't know they were part of an investigation, did not understand the nature of the questions they were being asked and could have incriminated themselves.

Furthermore, Hennington said, the girls were minors and could not be represented by their own attorneys, even as the state sought to take their children into custody.

Judge Barbara Walther overruled the objection and admitted the reports into evidence.

Earlier today, initial testimony focused on a sect membership roster and other records taken from a safe in the office of Richard Barlow at the ranch.

One document details the names, ages, and family relationships of sect members representing more than 30 families. Questioning a Texas Department of Public Safety sergeant who participated in a search of the ranch, attorneys representing the state focused in on 10 women between the ages of 16 and 19 listed as married to older men. Five were listed as having children.

On cross-examination, attorneys from legal aid groups representing FLDS women pressed the sergeant to admit many women were not listed as underage wives. The sergeant testified the list is also unclear on mother-child relationships.

Officials have said they do not know if Sarah is in state custody. Court documents say the girl spoke of becoming the seventh wife of a 50-year-old man named "Dale" and conceiving her first child when she was 15. She described being beaten by her husband, once so badly she needed treatment at a hospital for broken ribs, and said she wanted to leave the ranch.