Among the hundreds lawyers, families and caseworkers who will take part in an unprecedented child custody hearing beginning here today, one person will be noticeably absent -- the 16-year-old girl whose call for help sparked a raid on a fundamentalist religious sect.
In late March, a person who identified herself as a 16-year-old girl named Sarah made several petrified calls to an abuse hotline, complaining that her 49-year-old husband physically and sexually abused her, court records say.
The calls prompted government officials to raid the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas and take more than 400 children from the Fundamenalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints into custody, setting in motion one of the largest child custody cases in U.S. history.
Texas authorities say they have not located or identified Sarah, though they have said they believe she exists and is in state custody.
But, some are now questioning whether she exists at all.
Though the girl is not key to today's hearing, her absence looms over the case. Without her, any potential criminal charges that might be brought against members of the sect in the future could be jeopardized, legal experts say.
"This girl is proving to be the linchpin of the entire operation," Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, told ABC News. "If she doesn't exist, it's going to make it very difficult to defend this search. And if you can't do that, you can't use anything they found in there."
Several women who live on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch told ABC News that Sarah does not exist.
"She's a bogus person," a woman who identified herself as Joy said earlier this week.
Investigators were apparently searching for information about the girl and seized medical records for several women who shared the name given by Sarah during their search of the compound, according to court records. Though an arrest warrant was issued for a man thought to be her husband, police did not arrest him.
On April 4, a day after Texas police raided the compound, an abuse hot line in Arizona received a similar call from a 16-year-old who said she was calling from the FLDS community in Colorado City, Ariz.
The girl said she was being held against her will and physically abused, said Fernando Vender, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which oversees child protective services.
When Arizona investigators visited a family with the same name provided by the caller, they did not find the girl or any evidence of abuse, he said. Though the case remains open, investigators "could not verify that there was a young girl by that name, with that family and that abuse was going on," Vender said.
In Texas, state Attorney General Greg Abbott wasn't so concerned about finding the caller named Sarah.
"It's irrelevant if the 16-year-old can and will be found," Abbott told "Good Morning America" today.
He said Child Protective Services "believe they have significant evidence" that abuse occurred and that the children would be in danger if they were returned to the ranch.
Abbott hinted that additional charges could be brought against sect members because women who gave television interviews in recent days "basically admitted to living in a state of bigamy... That also would be a ground for legal prosecution here in the state of Texas."