This article was updated to include an interview with Julie Balovich, who spoke with Ms. Vine after publication.
Ten years ago, in April, a call came into a San Angelo domestic abuse hotline from someone identifying herself as “Sarah.” She claimed to be a sixteen-year-old living on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a community in Eldorado settled by the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints under the leadership of their prophet, Warren Jeffs. The fallout from the report was immense: law enforcement entered the property to search for “Sarah,” who, they found out months later, didn’t exist. The real caller was Rozita Swinton, a 33-year-old woman living in Colorado Springs. Though the call turned out to be a hoax, the details Swinton gave about widespread underage marriage and sexual abuse were anything but. Her call triggered a law enforcement raid on the 1,700-acre property, and, eventually, a Department of Family and Protective Services order to remove 437 children from the ranch.
What followed was the largest child custody battle in U.S. history, eliciting age-old struggles between religious freedom and the role of government. Public opinion turned against the state’s actions, and while the Third Court of Appeals ordered DFPS to return the children to the ranch, the agency continued to work the cases as law enforcement looked into criminal charges. Investigators eventually found that two girls living at YFZ were twelve when they were ordered to marry, three were thirteen, two were fourteen, and five were fifteen. Seven of those girls had one or more children. In the end, eleven FLDS men were given prison sentences for crimes related to bigamy and sexual assault. In 2012, Jeffs—who continues to run the FLDS from a cell in Palestine, where he is serving a life sentence for sexual assault of a twelve- and fifteen-year-old—ordered the residents at YFZ to abandon the property and live in smaller groups throughout the country.
One decade later, we spoke to several of the key players involved in the raid and the extensive investigation that followed.
Sheriff of Schleicher County, led law enforcement onto the YFZ ranch to search for “Sarah”
We’re proud of the fact that the raid was as calm as it was, and I base that on communication and the relationship we’d built with the community prior to the raid. We had some knowledge of FLDS culture, of who they were, and of names and faces. I had an open line of communication with Merril Jessop, who ran ranch operations. The only thing that caught us off-guard is that we had always been told in local law enforcement that there were about two hundred to three hundred men, women, and children on the property. So when the judge ordered the removal of the children and we went out there and found out that there were over four hundred children on the property, we weren’t prepared.
In 2014, the state seized the YFZ property; right now, it’s in litigation from a former member. To this day, I’m the conservator.
— David Doran
In 2014, the state seized the YFZ property; right now, it’s in litigation from a former member. To this day, I’m the conservator. I oversee security and maintenance. I’m keeping the land viable for when it will be liquidated. A lot of houses are in need of repair; a lot of them leak. But I concentrate on keeping the infrastructure viable: the roads, the water well, the wastewater plant. We’ve got three hundred to four hundred head of exotics out there like black buck that need to be watered. We have a camera set up at the front gate, and we have our share of curiosity seekers—people trying to push the gate open or asking for a tour, which we don’t allow. But I check the perimeter daily.
Nothing about the raid haunts me. There were some horrible crimes and I feel for the victims. They had no choice in the matter and were indoctrinated to believe that what they were doing was correct. The raid opened a lot of members’ eyes because they were able to see the outside world, get a glimpse, and see that it didn’t match what they were taught. I feel good that Warren Jeffs was arrested, prosecuted, and sent to life in prison, along with those who committed similar crimes. So I believe the state of Texas handled it correctly and justice was served. I’m not haunted by anything other than that victims had to endure this. Hopefully, they’re getting justice now, whether they realize it or not.
Former member of FLDS, advocate for families and individuals trying to leave the sect
I found out that the FLDS bought that piece of property in Eldorado, Texas, and visited in 2004. I met with Sheriff Doran and Randy Mankin [of the Eldorado Success newspaper] and the townspeople there. I told them this was a very secretive group. I tried to let them know that they didn’t need to be worried about their own kids, but that the kids on that compound were very much in danger.
About two and a half weeks before the raid, I received a call from Rozita Swinton, who claimed to be in the FLDS. I’ve got to tell you, she was good. I was in a three-way call with her and law enforcement in Arizona. She had enough inside information that it was a really interesting series of calls. I recorded them. Ultimately, I ended up with the Texas Rangers and would dial them into the calls. We three-way-called the domestic violence shelter she called and triangulated her phone to find her.
I suspected that if it wasn’t a real girl, there was a deeper connection with somebody from the FLDS. There’s a whole other part to the story that was never exposed about how Rozita was getting the information she was getting, but it was from somebody in the FLDS.
I wish we could have helped every one of those kids. They were sent back to hell.
— Flora Jessop
I had no idea law enforcement was mobilizing to raid that ranch at the time I was taking those calls. When I found out they’d raided the compound I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I think Rozita, in her way, was trying to help the FLDS girl she met but I don’t think she understood the impact it was going to have. I don’t think anybody understood the impact it was going to have. They expected fifty kids max at the ranch and found almost five hundred.
I would have gone about this in a way that would not have harmed a child—that would not have taken so many kids in custody. That was a monumental thing to do, and it’s not the way to go about things. I wish we could have helped every one of those kids. They were sent back to hell. We lost track of every single one of the kids and families on that compound after CPS returned them.
I haven’t talked to any kids who escaped YFZ. I think they’ve been through enough. Some day they may approach me. If they have questions for me, they’ll ask.
Private investigator in Utah, assisted law enforcement on the YFZ ranch during the raid
I had been looking into FLDS cases for about five years when the raid occurred. I was listening to the calls that Flora Jessop was receiving from “Sarah,” and they were convincing calls, I’ll tell ya; she knew everything about the FLDS. When I heard the raid was happening, it didn’t even click that it might be connected to this person Flora and I were talking to.
Every indication was that the call was genuine, and law enforcement was duty-bound to respond. Had the FLDS been forthcoming and said, “Yeah, come on in, let’s resolve this and work it out,” it would have been much easier. But that didn’t happen.
Nevertheless, once law enforcement started seeing evasion and deceit, they were able to build on probable cause and acquire more search warrants that resulted in their finding the Warren Jeffs’s priesthood record: the crimes he committed, written by him. Without that evidence, Warren Jeffs would still be a free man.
Warren Jeffs is doing life in prison, and in Utah, he is still the president of two corporations. A convicted pedophile. He still calls the shots from prison. He has broken down the family structure of the FLDS in the past few years so that there are no more marriages in the FLDS; husbands and wives have been dissolved and the children have “caretakers” now. Procreation takes place in a ritual by one of the twelve high priests assigned to impregnate women. Husbands and wives can only shake hands—but for no more than three seconds.
Warren Jeffs is doing life in prison, and in Utah, he is still the president of two corporations.
— Sam Brower
Not many members of the YFZ who have left are talking. Some are critical of the way children were separated from their mothers, and I’m sure that was very traumatic. But there is due process for that. The fact is, there were children being abused there, and not a single one of those victims has ever been found. Maybe one-third of the members have been kicked out—that still leaves many thousands, and they’re scattered all over the country. There are thousands in the city where I live; they have little compounds. But the fact that those victims are still missing? That still bothers me. They deserve to know there is a family out there that cares for them.
I think about it a lot. I wonder if some thirty-year-old kid is going to ask me, “Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you find me?” and the answer is: because of government red tape. And because it’s hard for me to do the job of a government agency.
You know what would satisfy me is if somebody in the FLDS had the backbone to stand up and say, “Here are all these children,” and give them unfettered access to their families. That would satisfy me. But that will never happen as long as Warren Jeffs is still alive.
Captain Barry Caver
Texas Rangers incident commander for the YFZ raid
I was in the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff and I was in the Republic of Texas standoff in 1997, and then this one. After Waco and Ruby Ridge, the feds tended to shy away from any potentially bad press. So their involvement, initially, was limited. This was fine with me; we operate better amongst ourselves in state agencies.
Sheriff Doran and Ranger [Brooks] Long had developed a rapport with Merril Jessop, and we could talk with him and accomplish our goal and mission: to look for the so-called child making the outcry. We wanted to use patience and felt time was on our side; there was no point in forcing them into a violent act. I learned this from the Republic of Texas standoff, and carried it over to the YFZ raid: If officers have a compound like this within their jurisdiction, they should develop a rapport with the people in charge. Once you do, there’s a trust, and when something occurs later you’ve met face-to-face and you know who you’re dealing with. That’s number one. Number two, if they violate a law, you take action so they know where the line in the sand is drawn.
The main image I will never get out of my head was the temple—especially the weirdness of the white top level and the bed folding out from the wall. What that was used for almost makes your—it’s a sickening feeling. We were in contact with former FLDS members, and when we found the beds we were in such shock we asked these ladies, “What are we seeing?” and [they] described what it was used for.
You can’t argue with the outcome of the raid. I think we did everything we could do. Nobody got hurt, no shots were fired.
Attorney who represented the mothers whose children were taken from them after the YFZ raid
There was a lot of confusion in those first days. There were so many families that needed attorneys and we had very little time with them. After the judge decided that the children would be removed from the women, I thought, “There’s no way this will happen immediately.” There were not enough foster homes.
We found out about the removal when CNN showed the kids carted off on buses. I received panicked calls from moms who were terrified. It was hard enough hearing the anguish in the voices of these women, not knowing where their children were and how they could find them. The only women who were allowed to stay were mothers nursing babies under one year old. Some women nursing babies that were thirteen months old were separated from their infants.
The women wanted to know: Where are they taking our children? How could this happen? This couldn’t possibly be the law in Texas—and it wasn’t. That’s why the children were given back to their mothers.
Afterward, CPS gave the families cookie-cutter plans that did not align with the circumstances of the allegations. Case managers were saying that they had no discretion to change the plans. These were not parents who needed to learn that their kids shouldn’t watch too much TV.
I had less of an issue with the particularities of the individual care during the temporary removal than the fact that the children were taken from the parents at all. The way I look at it is, if the government really had a concern about these children, they did everything completely wrong to address it. They were tearing families apart without following the law. They didn’t feel the law applied to them. I think if a child has made an outcry, they had an obligation to investigate. But the child who made the outcry was supposedly sixteen years old, so why take the toddlers? Why the mass removal when the allegations were so specific?
I think that when you’re talking about CPS, the government has an enormous power to take away a child and the protections in the law are pretty minimal. The government has to follow those laws; it’s not ok for them to bypass the laws. There’s nothing more terrifying to a parent than having a child taken away.
Co-lead counsel for the children removed from the YFZ ranch
Much of that experience is a blur. I don’t think that Randy Stout [co-lead counsel] and I ever stood in one place for more than three minutes. At some point, Randy and I were in a meeting in the DA’s office with other decision-makers. I remember the tension of that meeting. We needed the records in order—we didn’t know who most of the children were. We were asking them questions as simple as “Who are you? Who is your mother?” And that alone became tricky. Sometimes they didn’t know who gave birth to them. There were hundreds of kids who didn’t give us consistent information: names had different spellings, children offered different dates of birth. Sometimes names were changed. We had women who refused to tell us if they had children, or what their children’s names were.
We needed the records so we could organize the children and family units for the adversary hearings. But law enforcement and prosecution naturally don’t want to turn over information because they’re in the middle of an investigation. That’s a common strain, a push-pull of competing interest between law enforcement and CPS. I remember Randy saying, “The worst thing that can happen for CPS is for us not to have the information.” And at the end of the day—and I’m not saying this to blame anybody—but we did not have the information in time for the full adversary hearing, so we were not able to distinguish children and family units; Judge [Barbara] Walther was not able to look at individual families, she had to see a collective unit, and that’s why the court ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to determine a per-child situation. That’s why the children were sent back home.
The number one thing I still completely agree with is Judge Walther’s order to remove the children from the YFZ ranch. Hindsight is 20-20, and now people ask why they couldn’t have stayed. But when you look at it in the moment, no one knew how the members of the FLDS would respond to the raid. You’re in a difficult situation either way. If those children stayed and we had another Waco, the question would always be: Why didn’t you get the children out?
You just hope the seed was planted that while there’s lots of evil in the outside world, the outside world, as a whole, was not evil.
— Carmen Dusek
One of the problems during the first few weeks was that CPS didn’t seem to respect, at the highest level, the need to communicate with the people the court had appointed to represent the rights of the children and speak as their best interest, which was Court Appointed Special Advocates. After the full advocacy hearing, a DPS trooper drove me to a meeting in a small office and a man walked in the room and said, “I’m Carey Cockerell.” We were led to believe that Carey Cockerell, the DFPS commissioner, was in Austin. He was not in the meetings with the rest of us deciding things like where the children were moving and when. I said something along the lines of, “Nice of you to finally show up,” and he said, “I’ve been here the whole time.” I was stunned to know that he had been on the ground and wouldn’t meet with us, because so many issues would have been much simpler if we’d had clear communication. If he had sat down in the meetings, we could have discussed the options together. There would have been significantly less confusion and wasted energy and back-and-forth on decisions and we could have continued to focus on where our children fit into what families.
I worry about those boys and girls who went back into homes. You just hope the seed was planted that while there’s lots of evil in the outside world, the outside world, as a whole, was not evil. And that there were people that could help them.