Former member of polygamist sect recounts horrific abuse

Says abuse started at infancy and led to "organized rape"

The Buffolo News/October 23, 2008

The soft-spoken woman from Nevada asked everyone in the Medaille College lecture hall to stand up.

That's about how many people are in her family, Sara Hammon said Wednesday afternoon.

"There are 95 people in my family. Seventy-five children and 19 mothers and my father," said the woman who ran away from a polygamist sect when she was 14. "We were nothing like the normal, average family."

Not at all.

In this family, girls were abused from the time they were infants and forced into arranged marriages, sometimes with men 50 years older, and some boys were forced to leave when they were teenagers so they would not compete for the women and girls with the older men who ran the community.

Her father, a respected elder, was a known pedophile, she said. When he was dying at age 82, all his children were forced to go to his room individually to say goodbye to him. She took his hand in hers, and he moved his hand down her leg to reach under her skirt.

"On his deathbed, my dad tried to sexually abuse me," she said.

Now 33, Hammon said she speaks out to publicize the abuse that is rampant in polygamy, leaving hundreds of victims while the government seems to look the other way. Her school, for example, which taught religious tenets, was supported by tax dollars, she said.

Hammon has told her story to ABC News' Diane Sawyer, "Larry King Live" and "Anderson Cooper 360." After the raid in Texas last April at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Warren S. Jeffs, she explained what it is like to live in a polygamist community.

Hammon spoke Wednesday with quiet poise, pausing occasionally to compose herself as she related some of the more emotional episodes of her life.

The sect that broke away from her community in Colorado City, Ariz., was led by Jeffs' father, Rulon T. Jeffs, she said. She said members of her community wore the simple dresses and braided hair seen on the members of the Texas sect.

Placement marriages, what she calls "organized rape," are commonplace with girls as young as 12, she said. While church leaders say that no one is forced into a marriage, girls were told that if they said no, God would punish them.

Her father's last marriage, when he was 68, was to a 17-year-old.

Hammon said that she never saw her parents have a conversation and that her father never remembered her name or which of his wives had given birth to her.

She always had wanted to get out of the community, she said, but it was physically isolated from the rest of Colorado City, and leaders took pains to emotionally and mentally isolate members from society at large.

But she visited her sister and brother-in-law who lived and worked in another town and sometimes baby-sat for a neighbor there. When she was 14, she asked the neighbors to take her in, and they did.

Hammon graduated from high school, and when she was 21, she discovered alcohol. Over the next several years, she used it to dull the emotional pain. When she was 27, she drove home one night and stayed in her car with the engine running, determined to end her life. But her roommate found her, and she went to treatment. She proudly proclaims her sobriety today.

Several years ago, she joined HOPE, a nonprofit group formed to assist survivors of abuse within polygamous relationships.

"There are girls whose lives are being stolen from them," Hammon said. "I speak out now so we can educate the public."

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