Investigators made no mention of child sex tapes, or seized photos of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs kissing young girls, after their April 2008 raid on the sect's remote Texas compound. Instead, the public saw the televised spectacle of more than 400 children being bused from the ranch over an abuse hotline call that proved to be bogus.
As Jeffs begins serving a life sentence, brought down by damning evidence seized at the ranch and finally revealed in court, the Texas Ranger who led the heavily scrutinized raid and investigation said he feels vindicated.
"There was a lot of miscommunication put out by the FLDS propaganda machine and defense. All those miscommunications came out in court and you can see the result," Texas Ranger Capt. Brooks Long told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview this week.
"I think the media is less skeptical of why those kids were removed and why the action took place. How can you know that they were having group sex on the bed in the temple? Now, you have the tapes," said Long, who declined to speak about the case until after the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader was convicted of sexually assaulting two child brides, ages 12 and 15, and sentenced.
Long said he and a small group of investigators and child protective workers went to the Yearning for Zion ranch on April 3, 2008, after receiving a report from a domestic abuse hotline that a pregnant 16-year-old girl reported being abused there. The call later turned out to be a hoax, but Long said that after seeing a 33-page report on interactions with the hotline worker, there was probable cause to investigate.
"We were planning on just going out to the ranch, starting the search and hoping that the girl would just run to us," he said.
Instead, they found rampant evidence of sexual abuse of girls, he said.
"When you have teenage girls standing in front of you pregnant, that's what I call evidence," said Long.
The search of the ranch was tense because some FLDS members were destroying documents while others videotaped the investigators or watched them from rooftops, he said. Rangers tried to convince FLDS members to voluntarily escort them into the temple and annex.
They refused, and ultimately, investigators were forced to hire a safe cracker, who spent 22 hours cracking one vault, Long said. Investigators had to use a jackhammer to get into the second vault. Inside, he said, they found audio tapes of Jeffs allegedly sexually assaulting the 12-year-old girl, just a fraction of the staggering amount of evidence seized at the ranch that led to the 55-year-old Jeffs' swift conviction.
Among the 984 boxes of physical evidence and another 6 terabytes of digital files carted away were wedding photos of Jeffs open-mouth kissing his teenage "celestial wives." In thousands of pages of personal journals, Jeffs wrote in 2005, "If the world knew what I was doing, they would hang me from the highest tree."
But none of that had either been found or made public in the often chaotic aftermath of the raid. FLDS women and girls, wearing prairie-style dresses to emphasize modesty, were bused from the ranch to an old fairground and swabbed for DNA samples. Families were separated for weeks in what one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.
Much of the second-guessing about the case began after the Texas Court of Appeals found that the state had removed more than 400 children from their parents without evidence that any of the children, beyond the teenage girls, were at risk of abuse. The state ultimately returned all of the children to their parents after the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the decision.
Long said the state was at a disadvantage in the custody case because, while it possessed all the evidence used in the Jeffs trial, it didn't have enough time to review it before the en masse child custody hearing, which had to take place within 14 days of the seizure of the children.
FLDS lawyers won a court order requiring that all documents be first reviewed to ensure the sect's religious rights weren't violated. Investigators could not even begin their review of the all the documentary evidence until about six weeks after the raid _ when the child custody ruling was well on its way to being overruled.
Willie Jessop, who became the public face of the FLDS after the raid, steadfastly condemned it and accused Texas officials of religious persecution. As Jeffs' trial drew closer, however, Jessop disavowed him and said he been previously unaware of the evidence of what Jeffs had been doing.
Despite all the evidence, Jeffs still has many followers, who consider him God's spokesman and a prophet. Jessop said the entire FLDS had to take responsibility, but that the state's handling of the raid was inexcusable.
"I don't agree with taking away those little children from their mothers. I'll never agree to that," Jessop said. "I believe it was barbaric, I believe it was a wholesale thing."
After viewing all the evidence, Long said there remains little doubt in his mind that the FLDS used religion as a pretext to run "an international criminal enterprise" that trafficked in young girls. He remains unconvinced that ranch residents have learned anything from the raid.
"These are the most loyal of the most loyal of the most loyal of the followers. There is no doubt that they'll continue to do his work," he said.
The FLDS is an off-shoot of the mainstream Mormon church, which rejected polygamy more than a century ago.
Roberts reported from Los Angeles.