When the hundreds of children and mothers arrived at the First Baptist Church in Eldorado, Texas, Helen Pfluger did her best to put them at ease. She chatted with them as she passed out food. She also offered crayons, which quickly demonstrated just how different these kids were. "When we handed out the Crayolas, they just stared at them," says Pfluger, who was volunteering at the church. "I think they were trying to decide if a crayon was something you were supposed to eat."

That was not the only culture shock in a bizarre odyssey that was still unfolding. On April 4 swarms of Texas Rangers and representatives of Child Protective Services raided a compound outside Eldorado belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect from the Mormon church, notorious for its practice of having older men take multiple young girls for their wives. Authorities were acting in response to a report of physical and sexual abuse. They found an undisclosed number of teenage girls who were pregnant and hordes of children wearing clothes that looked like something out of Little House on the Prairie. Officials took the extraordinary step of removing 419 children and 159 adults from their home for their own safety, by far the largest such effort in the state's history. "These kids have been raised in a cave, basically," says Sam Brower, a private investigator who has interviewed many former members of the FLDS. "They have little or no education, have never seen TV or listened to radio."

Investigators were also questioning an unknown number of men found at the compound, disciples of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs (see box), who was convicted in Utah last year as an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl and is now jailed in Arizona. But much of the attention was on the welfare of the women and children, many of whom appeared dazed by their new surroundings—and on unraveling the mystery of what has been going on behind the walls of the compound. As Pfluger recounts this at the church, where the women and children were temporarily housed, it was impossible to tell which children belonged to which women. "It was all very communal," says Pfluger, "with all of the women taking care of all the children." Barbara Arendt, the secretary at the church, says it was disturbing to overhear girls just entering their teens tell officials that they were already married, with all the conjugal duties that implies. "They looked so fresh-faced," says Arendt.

The isolated 1,700-acre compound, located on a bleak stretch of scrub land outside Eldorado, had been a source of unease in the community for years. When it was purchased in 2003, the word around town was that the new owners wanted to use it for a corporate hunting park. But thanks to a tip, Kathy Mankin, the office manager of the local paper, the Eldorado Success, discovered that was only a cover. The real purpose for the property was to serve as a new base of operations for the FLDS, which had been centered around Colorado City, on the Arizona-Utah border. Mankin and husband Randy drove to the sheriff's house to voice their alarm over the new neighbors. "We said, 'We've got polygamists!'" she says.

The ranch, which is now worth roughly $20 million, quickly became a hive of activity. Members set up their own rock-cutting quarry to harvest the limestone for the imposing temple they built. They also constructed woodworking and cement-making facilities, not to mention a water-treatment plant and their own electrical grid. There are two dozen buildings that have been split up into apartments. But while the men, some of whom worked other construction jobs in the area, could be seen in town shopping and engaging in small talk with locals, the women and children almost never left the compound. "The only time I've ever seen the women is from the air," says Mankin, who has flown many times over the compound to photograph the buildings. Visitors were kept at bay by a fence around the property and a gated entry; deliveries went only as far as the entrance. Former members spoke of children forced to work long hours and forbidden to play games or with toys; iPods programmed with religious music were one of the few concessions to modernity.

There was little secret that the FLDS, whose doctrine stipulates that only men who have multiple wives can excel in heaven, had made polygamy the centerpiece of their religion. (As a practical matter, authorities often wait for abuse allegations to move against polygamists.) Back in Utah the sect sparked intense controversy because of the "Lost Boys," hundreds of teenage boys who were unceremoniously cast out from the group—and their families—often to prevent them from becoming romantic rivals of the older men. Former members believe Jeffs ordered the move to Eldorado because it was even more remote than Colorado City and thus would discourage disgruntled girls from fleeing. "They're just like sheep," says Benjamin Bistline, who left the sect 20 years ago. "They only do what they're told to."

In the case of Eldorado, however, at least one member refused to stay in the fold. The trigger for the raid was a call to a domestic-violence shelter from a 16-year-old girl at the compound, who told a sketchy but explosive story. Spiritually married and a mother at 15, she was already pregnant again by an older man—and suddenly she wanted out. In a hushed conversation, according to a court affidavit, the girl said that her husband would force himself sexually on her and that when he got angry, he would "beat and hurt" her, once even breaking her ribs. (Authorities have yet to locate her.)

The police action—based on this single, so-far-unsubstantiated report—was not without controversy. Lawyers for the sect argued that there was no way the state could demonstrate in a matter of days that all 419 children were at "imminent risk of harm," the standard for removal. But state officials insisted the drastic measures were justified, while pledging to show the utmost sensitivity. "We're having to move very carefully," said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins. "This is a whole new world for [the children]. We don't want to make things more stressful than they already are." The agency dispatched nearly 100 specially trained interviewers to Fort Concho, in San Angelo, where the sect members have been taken, to meet with the children individually and gather evidence.

The raid and its aftermath threatened to overwhelm the tiny town of Eldorado (pop. 2,000). But for critics of the FLDS, the removal of the children was long overdue. "It's tragic to think of taking a child away from a mother," says Carolyn Jessop, now an antichurch activist who chronicled her life as an FLDS wife and mother of eight in a book, Escape (PEOPLE, Oct. 29, 2007), "but if she is not able to protect them from being victimized because of the mind control, they're not safe with her." In the days after the raid, Jessop, who says she had four stepdaughters at the compound, brought two of her daughters to Eldorado to allay the sect members' fears. "I thought, if my stepchildren could see their half sisters and see how they're doing, it will help them [see]," says Jessop, "that it's not all bad on the outside."

The children's futures remain uncertain. Proving abuse can be difficult if the minors are unwilling to testify against their elders, in which case the kids would likely be returned to their families. Pfluger says that to her eyes the kids seemed to be enjoying the outside world. The day after they arrived at the church, the kids were allowed to go out and frolic on the playground. "I don't know if they'd ever been on slides, swings or monkey bars before, but it doesn't take any child long to figure out what to do," she says. "You should have heard the squeals of laughter. The joy, the glee in their voices just thrilled my soul."

  • Contributors:
  • Cary Cardwell/Eldorado,
  • Anne Lang/Eldorado,
  • Darla Atlas/Fort Worth,
  • Vickie Bane/Denver,
  • Cathy Free/Salt Lake City.