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The Yearning For Zion ranch a few miles west of nowhere was built to keep the secrets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hidden from prying eyes.

But the church's days of splendid isolation and impenetrable secrecy - only the top fringe of the temple's white limestone walls visible from a distant rural road at the edge of the 1,700-acre spread - are rapidly ending.

The Texas Rangers raid of the secluded ranch in early April led to sensational allegations of grooming underage girls for marriage and sexual abuse. And the discovery of a 17-year-old girl at the ranch from an FLDS community in British Columbia could expose a part of the church's life that governments on both sides of the border have long ignored.

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Her parents say she had been visiting her grandmother who was living at the Texas ranch. But a weeklong Globe and Mail investigation indicates the trip may have been a ride on a little-known underground railway that takes young girls across the Canada-U.S. border - in both directions - for one purpose: to be assigned as a so-called celestial bride to FLDS men.

Flora Jessop, a former FLDS member who fled at age 16 after she was forced to marry a cousin, said the practice of "trading" young women across the border was akin to international trafficking of young women for sexual purposes.

"It happens all the time," she said in an interview. "They are not concerned about citizenship… They just walk across on a dirt road," she said, adding that no one ever tries to stop the border crossings.

Brenda Jensen, who was born into a polygamist FLDS family in B.C., said the insular communities require new blood "so they will not be so badly inbred." The FLDS communities have problems from too many children marrying their close relatives, including vulnerability to a rare genetic disorder called fumarase deficiency, which causes mental retardation and possibly early death.

The girls are taken across the border quietly at night and never return, Ms. Jensen said, adding, "The handsome ones go to the leaders."

Ms. Jensen broke away from the church at age 17. Her family had moved to an FLDS community in the U.S. three years earlier and she had been assigned to an American husband she did not want to marry. She said she does not regard the FLDS as a religion.

"This is an abusive cult."

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The religious practices of the FLDS, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, have been in the media spotlight since the sheriff of Eldorado, accompanied by the Texas Rangers, went to the Yearning For Zion compound on April 3.

A woman, who identified herself as Sarah, had telephoned a crisis-centre hotline, saying she was a 16-year-old at the compound with an eight-month-old baby who had been forced into a marriage with an older man and had been sexually assaulted. She appealed to be rescued.

Within hours, the cry for help had morphed into possibly the biggest child-abuse case in U.S. history. The government alleges it found what appears to be a pervasive pattern of underage girls being forced to marry older men, and of sexual abuse that created an unsafe environment for children. Authorities took 463 boys and girls into custody. The court placed the children in foster care for up to 60 days while the investigation continues.

The alarming allegations reverberated through FLDS communities in several U.S. states and in Bountiful in the southeast corner of British Columbia. They were amplified by former FLDS women from those communities who said they had been sexually abused and that underage girls were often assigned to marry older men.

Rod Parker, the lawyer and spokesman for the FLDS, has told the media that the government is misrepresenting what it found at the ranch in order to justify the raid.

But Texas authorities announced that more than half of 53 girls believed to be from 14 to 17 years old were pregnant or had children. Two girls younger than 18 had three children; six had two children. Mr. Parker disputed the ages of the girls and the number who were pregnant. He pressed the government to show evidence to back up their statements.

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Child-protection authorities acknowledged that they had difficulty finding information about those they apprehended. The women who left the ranch with the children gave multiple names and ages for themselves and the youngsters. Many children told child-protection workers they did not know how old they were or who their parents were.

One girl looked at her husband when an investigator asked her how old she was. "You're 18," he said. She then answered that she was 18.

For their eyes only

The Yearning For Zion ranch sits on desolate scrubland about 10 kilometres west of Eldorado, a service town of 2,000 that caters to the county's cattle, sheep and goat ranchers and to the oil and gas industry. The compound is about 400 kilometres west of Austin.

The FLDS came to Texas in 2003 after a member of the FLDS community in Colorado City, Ariz., was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sexual conduct with a 16-year-old girl. The case was the first time in 50 years that authorities had gone after FLDS polygamists. Anticipating a crackdown on their faith, their leader, prophet Warren Jeffs, decided to move the religion's headquarters from Arizona.

The Texas compound was intended for only the most fervent adherents to the faith, handpicked by Mr. Jeffs. They were reluctant to let anyone else know what was happening at the ranch. They did not hire local people to work on construction and kept contact with residents of nearby Eldorado to a minimum.

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Texans respect the right of property owners to do whatever they like on their own land, Kathy Mankin, co-publisher of the weekly Eldorado Success, said in an interview.

Nevertheless, many locals watched with increasing alarm as the sect built up the compound. Residents resorted to tracking the mammoth project from the sky, taking photos while flying over the property. The photos show several three-storey barrack-like homes, a huge glistening white temple and several other buildings on a grid-like street system. There is also a cement plant and rock quarry.

Much of it, including the massive homes and eating halls for multiple wives and countless children, is hidden behind a slope in the land, completely blocked from public view.

An attempt to walk onto the compound this week was stopped by a young man at the green metal ranch gate who said the sect's lawyer, Mr. Parker, should be contacted. Mr. Parker said neither he nor anyone else from the sect was available this week to speak in detail about the church.

The Canadian girl who was found at the Yearning For Zion compound arrived from Canada a few weeks before the raid, her parents say. The Globe is not publishing the girl's name in order to protect the privacy of a minor in foster care.

She was among the 463 boys and girls 17 years and younger apprehended by the state's Department of Family and Protective Services. She was treated by U.S. authorities as if she were an American and did not receive any special consideration because she had a Canadian birth certificate.

The social service agency obtained a court order requiring all the boys and girls, including the Canadian teen, to have DNA testing to determine their parents.

The government made DNA testing available to parents who wanted to participate.

The court also required all the minors to be placed in temporary foster care until their identity and circumstances could be clarified. Under Texas law, the court has 60 days to decide what to do with children in foster care.

Authorities have not yet looked at how the Canadian girl arrived in Texas and whether she was legally in the country. She is now at a facility on a ranch in west Texas that specializes in "healing abused children," according to its website. Its staff is trained in shaping new behaviour.

The girl's mother said in a brief interview this week from her home in Bountiful that she has not spoken to her daughter since she was placed in foster care. But the girl's mother was optimistic.

"She is doing okay, as far as I know," her mother said before politely refusing to answer any more questions. She anticipated she would be in contact with her daughter soon. "We're working it out," she said.

The 17-year-old may not be the only Canadian who was apprehended at the ranch. Some people involved with the court proceedings say they heard of others but could not remember details. Mr. Parker, the lawyer for the FLDS, said in a brief interview he did not have "any real information" about Canadians at the ranch.

A source for young girls

The FLDS is well known as the religion that promotes polygamy as the path to heaven. FLDS men marry their first wife legally; they are united with additional wives only through a "celestial" marriage.

Joseph Raymond Blackmore, the father of Winston Blackmore who served as the bishop for the FLDS in B.C. from 1984 to 2002, had 34 wives. Winston Blackmore, 51, has been reported to have 26.

The religion's perspective on plural marriages has evolved over the past 50 years. Initially, men and women chose who they married. A theological shift led to a belief that the sect's leader could identify a person's eternal soulmate, and the prophet began assigning women to their husbands.

The current prophet, Warren Jeffs, introduced another twist. Based on revelations, Mr. Jeffs reassigned married women and their children, ordering them to leave their husbands - who were deemed unworthy - for other men.

Only a few men from the Yearning For Zion compound were designated to have contact with outsiders, said a mechanic in Eldorado, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was the same couple of guys every time," he said, "and they always paid with cash, never wrote a cheque, always cash."

He had heard they had bought a large John Deere tractor, also with cash. "They came with a suitcase of money," he said.

Although he had never been in the compound, he had seen aerial photos and was impressed with the work that was done. They had large earth-moving machines and a stone quarry for limestone for their temple. They put in roadways just like the town. "I wish they would come here and fix up our roads," he said.

In B.C., despite pressure to crack down on polygamy, a succession of provincial governments over the past 20 years have been afflicted with Hamlet-like indecision on whether to initiate legal action. As a result, the B.C. community at Bountiful continues to serve as a source for young girls for FLDS men in the U.S.

Mary Mackert, a former sixth wife in a celestial marriage, said she heard about an FLDS bishop in the U.S. who took a young Canadian girl as his second wife. In order to arrange for her U.S. immigration, the FLDS bishop divorced his first wife - whom he had legally married - and married the Canadian. She could then apply to stay in the U.S.

People travel between the FLDS communities in Canada and the U.S. all the time, she said. They get away with it, she said, because "they do not look like they are trafficking."

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