‘I expected the world to be in flames’: Hear from the children taken from a Texas polygamous compound, 10 years after the raid

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Angelo, Texas - Janet, an FLDS matriarch, tearfully embraces young girls as they arrive at the old historic Fort Concho, where nearly 500 FLDS women and children would be temporarily sheltered in primitive buildings such as former horse barns. The large amount of people that Texas Child Protective Services called victims overwhelmed the state's foster care system.

Hildale • Ten years ago this week, SaraBelle Steed expected God to strike down the gentiles.

“I knew that Heavenly Father was going to bring fire from heaven and burn everyone up,” SaraBelle recalled in a recent interview.

She was among 468 children taken by state officials from the Yearning For Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. The ranch belonged to the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

On March 29, 2008, a woman, who said her name was Sarah Barlow, called a shelter in nearby San Angelo and said she was being held against her will at the ranch. The call was bogus. Barlow was actually a Colorado woman named Rozita Swinton with a history of making false reports and no connection to the FLDS. She was a gentile, in FLDS parlance.

But in searching for “Barlow,” local, state and later federal law enforcement removed the children. They were placed in temporary shelters and then foster care. Two months after the phony call, the Texas Supreme Court effectively ordered the children back to their families.

In the aftermath, 10 men, including FLDS President Warren Jeffs, were convicted of bigamy or sex crimes. Jeffs was convicted of charges related to sexually abusing two teens he took as plural wives. He is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in a Texas prison.

Law enforcement, Texas Child Protective Services and the FLDS have gotten to tell their stories during the past decade. Now many of those taken in the raid are old enough to talk, too.

The Salt Lake Tribune, earlier this year, sought to interview those children, many of whom are now adults. Some, including any who are still members of the FLDS, declined to speak. Some did not want to relive the memories. Others said they did not want to offend family who are still in the sect and still don’t believe Jeffs committed any crimes.

Five agreed to give their oral histories of the raid, though they shared some of their peers’ concerns about offending family. The Tribune is using only the first name of one boy who was 8 at the time.

Those five children’s families lived on the Utah-Arizona line before moving to Texas as early as 2004. These excerpts tell their collective story of what’s thought to be the largest child custody case in American history.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune These aerial views of the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch outside of Eldorado, Texas, were taken on Tuesday, April 8, 2008, just days after law enforcement officers raided the FLDS compound. A handful of residents remained on the property, along with a large number of officers who were still conducting operations.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Rulon Hamilton grew up in the FLDS polygamous sect before being adopted as a teenager. Rulon now lives with his new family in West Valley City, Thursday April 7, 2016.

What was life like on the YFZ ranch before the raid?

Rulon Hamilton, age 8 during the raid: “We were there when it was still getting set up. They were knocking down all the old … The guy that lived there before, they were still knocking down his buildings.

“… It wasn’t terrible. We lived in a trailer house. … Warren Jeffs would ride on four-wheelers every now and then. It was out in the middle of nowhere. He would actually come out on a four-wheeler and visit us once or twice a week maybe. Then, we’d see him at meeting time or whatever. That’s my main memory before he went into jail, which was ’06. …

“There was no power, and there was barely any water. I mean, it wasn’t a terrible place, but it wasn’t the best either.”

SaraBelle Steed, age 17 during the raid and the oldest child taken into custody: “I was a first-grade assistant. I was there a year before the raid.

“I was in Uncle Merrill’s family. He had 15 or 20 wives.”

Spencer, age 8 at the time: “There wasn’t really anything much fun to do over there. Basically all we ever did was go to school or, like, gardening, whatever.”

Wendell Jessop, age 9 during the raid: “It was a fairly mild childhood until the raid happened, and quite frankly that really screwed [kids] up.

“We were taught good schooling. It was good.

“I worked hard, too. I learned a lot of good trades and I’m proud of it. There’s not another kid in the world who learned as much as I know now.”

RuLeecia Rohbock, age 4 during the raid: “One memory, I was with my siblings, my brother and my sister. They were my real cousins, but I was told they were my brother and sister. And we were watching outside. We were told that, I think, something bad was going to happen. We were just scared of these people and so we were just watching outside. And we just saw something in the distance, and it was just a helicopter. It wasn’t nothing, but we were really scared for everything.”

(Eric Gay | AP Photo) Wendell Jessop, 10, left, stands on the porch at his home with sisters Pearl, 12, and Yvone, 16, on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, Friday, March 27, 2009.

What were you taught about the outside world?

Rulon: “Well, so what they teach us about the outside world, as far as the way they taught us that everybody was going to die except for us. They’re saying that gentiles are evil.

… Eventually, I remember going into the raid, and leaving that place, I remember going out and I expected the world to be in flames, and this was the end, but it wasn’t that case at all.”

SaraBelle: “We were taught that people, the gentiles, were seeking our lives and they’re so wicked they would do anything to destroy the work of God and the people.”

RuLeecia: “We were told that we were the ones that were gonna be lifted up and not to interact with other people.”

Did you know there were pregnant teenagers on the ranch?

Rulon: “That was something that I didn’t even think was weird until I got older. That was just normal. I do remember, after we got placed in Merrill Jessop’s family, then his daughter was only 12 years old, and I remember she was going off to get married to Warren Jeffs, and I just thought that was the greatest thing ever, because it was Warren Jeffs.”

SaraBelle: “Some of those girls were my sisters.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eldorado, Texas - In April 2008, Child Protective Services (CPS) raided a polygamous sect's Texas ranch and removed 416 children after receiving phone calls, now believed to be a hoax, from someone claiming to be an abused sixteen-year-old girl. This raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch became the largest child custody case in United States history. Here, on the first night of removals, young FLDS women and children are taken into shelter at the First Baptist Church in Eldorado, Texas.

What was it like when the police entered the ranch?

Spencer: “We didn’t see them pull up, but I saw them staged over there. … They had their whole parking lot over there full. All their vehicles and stuff and the sheriff and everyone were all just standing around.”

Rulon: “I remember everyone was saying, ‘It’s going to be OK. We’re just going to say our prayers, and they’ll be gone within a few hours,’ and then I wasn’t really worried, because I didn’t know what was going on, and everyone was saying it was going to be OK, and just to stay in your homes. … I do remember when they started taking all the girls down to the meeting house. … That’s when everybody started freaking out, and that was a panic for me. I was like, ‘Why do they just want the girls? Why are they taking just the girls to interview? Why don’t they take everyone?’ There were so many unanswered questions for me as a kid.”

SaraBelle: “We didn’t know if they were going to kill us because of what we were taught. I was so frightened. I was shaking frightened.

“Uncle Merrill told us not to let them know who our real fathers were or how many mothers we had or who the leaders were. It seems like he said, ‘They are going to come after me and the other men.’

“[Investigators] asked me several times if I knew of underage girls who were pregnant. I kept telling them no.”

RuLeecia: “The day of the raid, I remember being in the living room and the people came knocking on our doors and all of a sudden someone came and picked me up, just this man in black, and he carried me out to a bus and that’s all I really remember.”

Wendell: “I think the state of Texas wanted it to be another Waco because they’re just a bunch of trigger-happy cops that wanted to have another gunfight somewhere.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune FLDS women and children from the YFZ ranch are escorted by Texas Child Protective Services workers and Schleicher County Sheriff's deputies from the First Baptist Church's Fellowship Hall to buses on Sunday.

What do you remember about the children and mothers being taken away?

SaraBelle: “Some men were telling everyone to put shoes on and get on the bus. I remember walking down the stairs to get my shoes on and being just so shocked. I was in disbelief.

“I went outside. I could see moms hugging their kids. There were police snipers and two buses parked. I was shocked. I was just too shocked.”

Rulon: “They had taken the girls off the ranch. We thought that was all they wanted. They were just going to leave us, and they were going to return the girls later. It was in the middle of the day, and we all of a sudden got a phone call. I heard someone yell that they were starting to search the homes. … I was like, ‘Why are they searching homes? Why did they take the girls? What are they going to do to us when they get here?’

“We didn’t know when we were on the list to get searched, our house, so I was one of the last ones to actually go upstairs. I remember this very clearly, because it scared me, but I was just wandering through the halls. It was so empty. Everything was just desolate, and it was just quiet. I was walking through the halls, and I came around the corner, and all of a sudden, there was a gun in my face, just a big old muzzle, and I swear I probably peed a little. … It was a big SWAT guy. He was like, ‘Get upstairs.’

“… Then, they took us off the property after they got done searching, and they asked a few questions, and that’s when they started loading us up on buses and took us off the ranch.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eldorado, Texas - Nearly two months after 416 FLDS children had been removed from the polygamous sect's YFZ Ranch, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that CPS must return the children due to a lack of evidence. Having spent two months in a shelter, Edson Jessop's young sons Zachery, Ephraim and Russell Jessop wanted nothing more than to see an end to the persistent media coverage and return to their quiet family life on the ranch.

Describe the temporary shelters set up in Eldorado and San Angelo.

Spencer: “They got a little area out back that they kind of fenced out by the back door. They let us go out there and run around a little bit, but other than that … just sat there.”

RuLeecia: “Well, I remember being inside the shelter. I remember this one time I dropped my doll … and this woman, she had a long ponytail, long black ponytail. She came in and she told us that if we didn’t lay down and go to bed she was going to spank us. That’s what I remember.

“… And I have another memory. We would wake up early. [My sister] and I would and it was like 5 o’clock and we went into the bathroom and it’s a big door that you open. It was one of those big metal doors, and we went into the bathroom and we would wait for each other, and she would hold the door for me when I was going back out. And she slammed the door on my foot … on my big toe, and I had to go get stitches.”

SaraBelle: “I had a phone hid. … I made a few phone calls to Father and then the phone died.

“We were coached to cry and say we wanted to go home. They especially coached the younger children to do that.

“They did DNA testing on everyone. … We were really mad about it and tried to get out of it — wouldn’t open our mouths.

“Some of the girls were younger than me and they had babies, but they didn’t bring babies with them. All of a sudden, in one room, police brought a baby and asked the mother if that was her child. The mother denied it.”

Rulon: “The very first place, it was actually right in Eldorado, so just a few miles away, and I can’t remember the name of it, but it was just a big, huge warehouse basically, and there was just cots, and that’s how we lived for a few days.

“They started to take more and more people away on buses. They eventually got around to us. … They were like, ‘We’re going to take you to a better location,’ and they ended up taking us to the pavilion in San Angelo. … Then, right after they got us off the bus, they took everyone inside, and that’s when they started separating the parents and the children.”

Spencer: “They’d come in and take the kids one by one and question them in a back room they had there. They’d take you away from your parents and ask you whatever questions.

“Everyone was just crying. You couldn’t hear anything besides just all the children crying. The whole place, it was like 9 in the morning and they just came in and had all the mothers. They just coming in like, ‘Hey, all you mothers, you have to come follow me.’ They just took them out, put them on the buses, and just shipped them out. Most of them couldn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Rulon: “They were prying some kids off of their moms, little tiny ones, and I remember they asked me to come with them, and I looked back and they’d said the same thing to my mom or something, so she started to go the other way. Then, she ran up and gave me a hug or something, and she was like, ‘I think they’re separating us.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ Then, she walked away.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune A group of children playing soccer under the supervision of FLDS women in a fenced-off area at Fort Concho, where they are being held by Texas Child Protective Services Tuesday, April 8, 2008. CPS says they have taken 401 children from the YFZ Ranch into protective custody and brought them to Fort Concho.

What was it like in your foster home?

Rulon: “Oh, it was heaven. It was heaven for us, because they had bicycles. They had toys. They had everything that we got rid of down on the Texas ranch, so we literally had everything a kid would want on that place. At least for me, I got to ride my bike. There was toys. There was swings. I remember, there was always something to do. It was just heaven. I didn’t have to go to work. I didn’t have to listen to all these people. For me, it was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ “

SaraBelle: “They introduced us to everyone. The next day, we were taken to a private school on the campus. They gave us eye appointments and stuff. Mostly people there were taking care of us until the courts decided what they were going to do.”

Spencer: “Had to take me to a shelter in Waco. … Yeah, it’s the Methodist Children’s Home there. … For the situation, it was pretty decent. Except for the fact that, you know, you really hated that they took us away from our parents, but you know, saying in the case that our parents just died, it would be really decent.”

RuLeecia: “I remember [my biological mother] walking in and I just was like ‘Heck.’ They told me it was my mom and I was like ‘No way’ because I had always thought another … Ester, that was her name … she was my mom. That’s what they told me. But yeah, I remember. She came and gave me a hug and I was just like ‘Who is this woman?’ ”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Angelo, Texas - Janet, an FLDS matriarch, tearfully embraces young girls as they arrive at the old historic Fort Concho, where nearly 500 FLDS women and children would be temporarily sheltered in primitive buildings such as former horse barns. The large amount of people that Texas Child Protective Services called victims overwhelmed the state's foster care system.

What was it like when you were reunited with your family?

Rulon: “We actually heard that some kids were going to go back with their parents. We started getting really excited, but every visit that she came, she wouldn’t take us. We’re like, ‘Can’t we just come with you?’ … They were like, ‘No, not yet.’ Eventually, we heard that she was coming to get us. We got really excited.

“The next day, she came, and she brought her mom with her, so that was the very first time I ever met my grandma. … We went and lived in a house in San Antonio. It was about an hour out of San Antonio for … That was right after the raid. We lived there for about a month before we actually went back onto the ranch.”

SaraBelle: “We hugged and cried and got my stuff and got out of there and drove down to Gonzales and picked up the other kids.”

RuLeecia: Mom “picked me up and she threw me up in the air … and I was so happy. I was so happy to finally be out of there.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer was an 8-year-old boy when Texas officials removed 468 FLDS children from the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. He was photographed in Maxwell Park, Hildale, Saturday March 17, 2018.

Was the raid a factor in you leaving the FLDS later?

Spencer: “Before I didn’t really know what the outside world was like, but since it kind of gave me more of an idea what it was like, it could have. It could have started that, because I always wanted to ever since I was like 12 or whatever. … It didn’t actually happen until I was 16. I was actually able to do something about it.”

Rulon: “It definitely had a lot of impact. I do remember when I was getting ready to leave, I remember thinking back on the raid. … I remember having the same feelings. … I remember feeling so guilty, and that had a lot of impact. I remember I thought a lot about the raid when I was in the process of leaving.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) RuLeecia Rohbock, 14, recounting her experiences in the 2008 raid on the YFZ Ranch. Photographed in Hildale, Friday March 16, 2018.

What do you have to say to Texas officials?

Wendell: “They went about it all wrong and the actual reason they went on the ranch was fake. But they could have just come on there for the right reasons and done it in a totally different way.”

RuLeecia: “I would have told that guy [who carried me to the bus] I could walk. He shouldn’t have picked me up. I remember not being too happy about that. But I don’t have feelings against anyone. I know that they were probably just doing their job.”

Rulon: “I don’t hold any hard feelings toward anyone, even my birth mom, and she’s the one that I would have hard feelings toward.”

Spencer: “I really wish they would fix their [Child Protective Services] system. … It seems like they did the best they could for that much people. But the way they handled the kids, especially the younger ones, wasn’t good at all. And I also wish that they would consider that when you’re going into a place with kids and you don’t bring in the whole SWAT team in the bedroom and in the front door.”

SaraBelle: “It was a good experience — to go through that and see that the world wasn’t so wicked as we were taught.”