My greatest fear was that what ever was happening at the YFZ Ranch could explode into another Waco, the Texas town where seventy- six people died back in 1993, when the Branch Davidian compound, run by the self-styled prophet David Koresh, burned to the ground after being raided by federal agents. Footage of that raid circulated among the FLDS as an example of how corrupt the government had become. FLDS leaders blamed the government for killing everyone at Waco.
I had eight stepchildren on the YFZ Ranch who were younger than eighteen and several more who were adults. I had taught a few of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs's wives when I was a schoolteacher, and I was concerned that they might be on the ranch, too. Severing myself from the FLDS did not mean I stopped caring about those I'd loved when I was there. It was a constant source of guilt that I'd been unable to protect those loved ones as much as I'd managed to protect my own children. In the nearly six years since I'd fled, my life—and my children's—had steadily improved. Knowing firsthand how joyful life could be made me yearn even more that those still mired in the cult might one day cut themselves loose.
But my deepest concern was for my daughter Betty, who'd broken my heart when she returned to the FLDS in 2007 immediately after turning eighteen. For about a month we lost all contact but gradually began talking again by phone. Our last conversation, just four days earlier, had lasted forty- five minutes. She was not living on the YFZ Ranch but was cooking and cleaning for her half- brothers, who were working on construction jobs outside Texas. She never talked about why she wasn't on the ranch with her father, whom she idolized, but I suspect Merril wanted to make sure she was truly committed after living for four years "on the outside." My heart froze as I contemplated what this new crisis might mean for our still- shaky relationship. But above all I felt relief that Betty wasn't at the ranch.
It was an endless night. When the calls stopped, my mind didn't. Something huge was unfolding in Texas. What terrified me most was that Merril was in charge of the hundreds of children inside the compound. Merril saw himself as invincible and had never been reasonable or accountable to anyone. He was a bully and a coward. And that, of course, made him even more dangerous. He was careful to protect his own safety, but if he felt desperate and trapped, he was capable of doing something stupid.
After a sleepless night, I got up the next day, April 4, and began calling everyone who might know something. I learned that the ranch had been surrounded because the Child Protective Services (CPS) for Texas wanted to talk to a young girl named Sarah Barlow, who'd made a call to an abuse hotline on March 29, 2008. The girl had begged for help, claiming she was forced to marry at sixteen, became pregnant, and was repeatedly raped and beaten by her fifty-year-old husband.