Excerpt: 'Triumph' by Carolyn Jessop

Initially Merril refused to allow the CPS workers on the YFZ Ranch because, he insisted, there was no one there by the name of Sarah Barlow. But after resisting for hours, Merril apparently realized that the Texas Rangers weren't backing down. So he finally allowed them and their deputies to enter. They were followed by a team from CPS, who began searching the compound for "Sarah," the young girl who'd made the call. When they could not find her, the CPS team wanted to talk to all the teenage girls on the premises who were younger than seventeen.

Of the twenty girls CPS interviewed, five were named Sarah. One had had a baby at sixteen but she said she was not Sarah Barlow. CPS found other girls under eighteen who were pregnant. Under Texas law, it is a crime to engage in sexual contact with someone younger than seventeen who is not a legal spouse. I was told that the girls generally refused to answer questions; the few who did talk were defiant in their insistence that no age was too young to get married.

The Texas Supreme Court decision that was reached six weeks later described the reception CPS got at the ranch: "When the Department arrived at the YFZ Ranch, it was treated cordially and allowed access to children, but those children repeatedly 'pled the Fifth' in response to questions about their identity, would not identify their birth dates or parentage, refused to answer questions about who lived in their homes and lied about their names—sometimes several times. Answers from parents were similarly inconsistent: One mother first claimed that four children were hers, and then later avowed that they were not. Furthermore, the Department arrived to discover that a shredder had been used to destroy documents just before its arrival."

Law enforcement officers who accompanied CPS onto the ranch noticed pregnant young girls being herded from one house to another on the compound. A lawyer involved with the case later told me that the state always suspected that it never got all the children from the ranch because some had been whisked away.

By Saturday, April 5, CPS had taken 167 children into custody. I was on the phone when the news bulletin appeared on TV, announcing that district judge Barbara Walther had ordered the removal of young girls from the ranch. Moments later there was a shot of a bus filled with young girls leaving the compound. One of the heads I saw bobbing up and down through the bus window had bright red hair. My heart almost stopped. I was sure it was my fourteen-year-old stepdaughter; she would be terrified at being removed from the only world she had ever known.

What had begun as a simple investigation of a distress call by a young woman named Sarah had exploded into a human tragedy and a major national news story.

Once again Merril revealed his stupidity. If he'd only cooperated with authorities at the beginning and provided one of the Sarah Barlow's for questioning, the raid on the ranch could probably have been avoided. The interview would have been fruitless, and there would have been no grounds for law enforcement to search all the homes on the ranch. The officers might have wanted to do more questioning, but CPS would never have discovered as much as it did.

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