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ELDORADO, Texas -- Despite removing more than 200 women and children from a polygamist compound outside of town, state child welfare officials have not found a 16-year-old girl whose abuse complaint last week triggered the massive raid.
"I'm confident the girl exists and the allegations she brought are accurate," said Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services in a Sunday afternoon news conference at the local high school. "We did not have face-to-face contact. It was a telephone call with limited information," she said of the complaint of abuse.
Since being removed from the compound near Eldorado, the women and children had been sleeping in rooms crowded with cots in facilities in Eldorado, including the civic center and First Baptist Church fellowship hall.
"They huddled together. It was very obvious they were scared. They were non-responsive. They looked like deer caught in the headlights," said church leader Helen Pfluger, 59.
She estimates she spent at least 30 hours with the women and children over the weekend but said communications never rose above the most basic level.
"I felt like I was from Mars, that I was alien to them. There was not one thing we had alike, except that we were female and had children," she said.
Pfluger said the children dressed in 19th-century garb, did not know what crayons or breakfast cereal were, and that they were not accustomed to some of the food they were offered.
"Our food made some of the children sick. They are used to drinking raw milk and they asked for it," she said.
"When they had clothing needs, it was impossible to give them what they needed. Where are you going to find a long-sleeve, high-neck, loose-waist, long dress for a 3-year old girl?" she asked.
On Sunday, they were taken in buses 40 miles north to San Angelo's Fort Concho. The historic site has facilities to rent for social and business gatherings, and it also has a state office building that a tour guide said includes a child welfare office.
After three days of searching, officials haven't been able to find the girl who first called one week ago seeking help or determine whether she is one of 159 children they have removed from the complex.
Law officers entered the sect's sacred temple after a Saturday standoff over whether authorities could search it for children to be questioned about possible abuse. Fearing a worst-case scenario, officers on Saturday had called ambulances to the compound after leaders refused to allow authorities to search the temple.
Later, a stream of ambulances and law-enforcement vehicles left the compound without incident. Officials said there had been some tense moments, but everyone remained calm and peaceful.
A prosecutor said there are concerns for the safety of the girl, who said that she was 16 and had a baby and an older husband.
"Certainly I have a concern for her health and well-being, certainly a concern for her safety," said Allison Palmer, first assistant district attorney for the 51st judicial district, which includes Schleicher County, where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints complex is located.
Search for suspect
Officers and child abuse investigators didn't enter the ranch until Thursday, when a search warrant was signed allowing them to search for records relating to the pregnancy of the girl and marriage to a man identified in the warrant as Dale Barlow.
Authorities believe the girl, who has an 8-month-old daughter, was 15 when she was married. A 2005 change in state law, prompted by concern about the sect, raised the legal age for a girl to marry to 16 from 14.
Palmer said Barlow has been located in another state and that he is wanted on a charge of sexual assault of a child, a second-degree felony.
Barlow's probation officer told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in Arizona.
"He said the authorities had called him (in Colorado City, Ariz.) and some girl had accused him of assaulting her, and he didn't even know who she was," said Bill Loader, a probation officer in Arizona.
Child welfare workers continued to search the 1,700-acre compound Sunday afternoon, hours after six buses took 159 children and 60 adults removed earlier from the compound to San Angelo. "We hope to immediately assess their medical and therapeutic needs," Meisner said.
It was unclear, however, how long the state could detain most of the women and children without a court order. A San Angelo judge has already given the agency legal custody of 18 sect children based on allegations of neglect or abuse.
Meisner said more legal developments might occur today.
"I do not believe we forced them to leave. They knew what their options were," she said without elaboration.
The sect and its leader
The raid came more than four years after members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, long based on the Arizona-Utah border, began arriving at this rural agricultural community.
While mainstream Mormons disavowed polygamy more than a century ago, the sect, led by now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs, believes in plural, arranged marriages that often involve teenage girls and older men.
In September, Jeffs was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl. He faces additional charges of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy in Arizona.
Since arriving, the sect has erected more than 35 buildings and a massive white temple on the compound, which is believed to be home to several hundred people. An initial wave of alarm in Eldorado eventually gave way to an uneasy, peaceful co-existence with the sect, whose members were rarely seen in town.
"We'd kind of mellowed out, both sides. We'd become accustomed to them, and no one thought they were a threat to the community," said Eldorado Mayor John Nikolauk.
He said that while it was widely believed in Eldorado that they practiced multiple, arranged marriages, some involving minor girls, the explosive issue never broke the surface until last week.
"We suspected it was going on but without a complaint, you're not going to get in there. It's a closed society," he said. "Everyone has empathy for the kids, that they'll get the breaks a normal kid would have. Maybe this will be the breakthrough we've been looking for."