April 16, 2008 — -- Three mothers from a polygamist community in West Texas complained today that they and more than 400 children were taken away at gunpoint "like animals" by heavily armed cops who raided their ranch earlier this month.
The women talked to "Good Morning America" hours after officials of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints released photos of the raid showing police in body armor carrying automatic weapons and backed by an armored personnel vehicle.
The sect is fighting back with a public relations campaign to counter claims by Texas authorities that young girls were physically abused and forced to marry at a young age at the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside the town of Eldorado.
Police raided the ranch after receiving a phone call for a 16-year-old girl who claimed her 50-year-old husband beat her and forced himself on her sexually. She told a family victims hotline that she had an 8-month-old child and believed she was pregnant again.
The trio of mothers from the sect denied to "GMA" that underage girls in the compound are abused, and said that the 16-year-old who allegedly called the hotline does not exist.
"We were taken at gunpoint and there's no papers served, like we're animals, and our children taken away," said one of the women, Esther. "And a story we're not allowed to hear, they won't give us...about a person that does not exist."
Authorities have not located or identified the 16-year-old caller, who identified herself as Sarah.
The women, who declined to give their last names, said they were all born into the sect. And one, Nancy, said she was married when she was 16, but denied there was any coercion in the marriage.
"We can leave any time we want to leave," Nancy said.
"I feel we are the most free women in the whole world," Esther added.
When the third woman, Marie, was asked if she knew of young girls forced to have sex, she giggle slightly and said, "No I do not."
The women said they will be present in court when custody hearings for their 416 children begin on Thursday. Some of the children have already been placed in foster care.
Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said on Tuesday she believed the children in state custody had been physically or sexually abused or were at risk of being abused.
"This was not a safe environment for those children," she said of the Yearning For Zion Ranch.
She also said the children would be more likely to tell investigators the truth "when they don't have a parent there coaching them."
The 416 children, most of whom are staying in the San Angelo coliseum, were followed by 139 mothers until Monday, when state officials forced all of the women who had children over the age of 5 to leave.
The women were given the choice of either returning to the ranch or going to what Meisner described as a "safe place." Six women opted not to return to the FLDS compound, Meisner said.
More than two dozen teenage boys taken from the polygamist sect have been shipped 400 miles away to a ranch for troubled boys and girls, the state confirmed to ABC News Tuesday.
Lawyers will begin to unravel what appears to be largest child custody case in U.S. history at a hearing Thursday.