Texas agencies probe abuse at polygamist sect

SAN ANTONIO Sat Apr 5, 2008 12:35am BST

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs arrives at court to hear the verdict against him in St. George, Utah, September 25, 2007. REUTERS/Jud Burkett/Pool

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs arrives at court to hear the verdict against him in St. George, Utah, September 25, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Jud Burkett/Pool

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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Texas authorities said on Friday that they were investigating a potential child-abuse case at a ranch operated by followers of a breakaway Mormon sect linked to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

No arrests had been made as of late Friday afternoon but officials said 52 girls have been removed from the secretive sect's compound.

"We took 52 children out, they were all girls between the ages of six months and 17 years," said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

"Eighteen of the 52 have been legally removed into state custody," he added.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said no suspect had been taken into custody but a search and arrest warrant had been issued.

The ranch is about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio and is a compound for a renegade Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is under the sway of Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet.

In November, Jeffs was sentenced in a Utah court to 10 years to life in prison as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old first cousin. Jeffs is awaiting trial on similar charges for arranged marriages in Arizona.

Local media reports said the Texas compound had been sealed off by investigators.

Crimmins earlier said he could not comment on the nature of the investigation but said "generally speaking, an abuse and neglect investigation is triggered when there is a complaint to the agency."

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon faith is officially known, renounced the practice of polygamy more than a century ago and is at pains to distance itself from breakaway factions that bless multiple marriages, often involving adolescent girls.

(Reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio and Ed Stoddard in Dallas; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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