On and off compound, West Texas polygamist sect members search for normalcy

The Dallas Morning News/December 28, 2008

If it were up to Joseph and Lori Jessop, they'd be back at their West Texas polygamist ranch, not living in a vast San Antonio home with a hot tub and leather sofas.

Their three blond children clamoring around them - springing off of trampolines, drag-racing strollers, needing noses wiped and coats zipped up over matching outfits - mask the despair the Jessops say they feel over their detachment.

"The loneliness, you can't imagine it," Lori says softly. "This is not the life we chose."

Back on the land the young couple left after about 440 children were removed from their parents, in a state raid that the courts ultimately struck down, another sect family is still healing. Edson Jessop and wife Zavenda Young say their four youngsters won't sleep alone, and think every motor home on the horizon is a bus coming to take them away.

"We are very much a disrupted community," Edson says.

Nearly nine months since state authorities raided the Yearning for Zion polygamist ranch and took hundreds of children into temporary custody, the families upended by the largest-ever U.S. child welfare case cling to their culture.

Some members of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hunker down in suburban subdivisions across Texas, struggling to maintain piety and an austere lifestyle in the face of influences they consider immoral. Others have moved back to the ranch, trying to restore sanctity and self-sufficiency to their once-thriving community.

Members of the breakaway Mormon sect say the state jumped to conclusions based on religious bigotry, sweeping into their sacred temple and snatching healthy, happy children based on a hoax call and bad information from their critics. Child Protective Services says it was required by law to check out the initial tip - purportedly a distraught sect teenager's plea for help to a women's shelter, though now suspected of being from a Colorado woman with a history of filing false police reports.

CPS officials say once they began to interview girls at the ranch, caseworkers grew alarmed over possibly widespread child sexual abuse, involving girls pressured into "spiritual" marriages with older men. Agency leaders defend the mass removal as necessary so caseworkers could investigate their suspicions. State courts ultimately ruled, though, that CPS removed too many children without enough proof each was at risk of abuse, especially those who hadn't reached puberty.

Last week, CPS capped its nine-month investigation with a report saying a dozen girls younger than 16 were "spiritually" married to adult men in the past four years. Of the 12, seven gave birth, CPS said. And nearly two-thirds of sect families investigated had children who were abused or neglected, mostly through inappropriate exposure to underage marriages.

Separately, a dozen men from the sect - including prophet Warren Jeffs - have been indicted on charges such as sexual assault of a child and felony bigamy. None has gone to trial.

Sect parents, though deeply affected, hardly call the shots in what has become a protracted legal and public relations battle between their church and Texas. Some say living at the ranch is still too risky. Others, confident that CPS can't convince the public that the sect's youths should be foster children, have urged all sect members to return.

Four recently agreed to talk.

Feeling trapped

Joseph and Lori Jessop admit they were among the luckiest parents at the ranch.

The gentle, well-spoken couple (he's 27, she's 26) say they have had a monogamous marriage so far, putting them on safer legal footing than many of their friends. While other mothers were separated from their children, attorneys succeeded in keeping Lori with her infant.

Many families remained under court-ordered monitoring for months, but the Jessops say they were the first family to be "non-suited," or dropped from court oversight, after they moved to San Antonio. Now, their 5-year-old daughter Ziana throws around the legal term with glee.

Still, the Jessops complain of unwanted outside influences on their children.

The tots have asked questions about scantily clad women, cigarette smoke, rock music and road rage. They have picked up the command "Mine." And they've described - in detail - the images they were shown in custody to determine if they'd been victims of sexual abuse.

"It's all about exposure," Lori says, a flash of anger breaking across her face. "You walk into a store, and it's all right in front of them."

The children are battling far more than outside influence. Joeson, the Jessops' 3-year-old, is again sucking the pacifier he gave up before the raid. All of the children now insist on sleeping in their parents' bedroom, Joseph says, and "come unglued" when they see buses - the vehicles that first carried them away from the ranch.

They crouch in the front window of their house, whispering that passing neighbors "look like cops." Instead of playing house, Ziana makes believe that she is "going to see my attorney."

The Jessops have maintained parts of their past life. Ziana is home-schooled and can name all the church's prophets. The children are unfailingly polite and perfectly groomed: the boys in tiny jeans and collared shirts, Ziana in braids and conservative, floor-length prairie dresses. The youngsters don't watch TV - they have books and building blocks.

But most of what they loved about life on the ranch is impossible to replicate. Processed food, bought at HEB and Wal-Mart, replaces homegrown vegetables, orchard fruit and dairy products they once took for granted at the ranch. Instead of building furniture and running propane lines at the ranch, Joseph is a construction day laborer.

He struggles, against a tight economy and bills he never had to pay before, to "keep from drowning." The couple say that they get some financial help from family and friends, but that the FLDS church is not funding their lifestyle.

The family worships alone at home, lonely for family and friends. The closest FLDS members outside of the ranch live 20 miles away.

"My husband is my only strength," Lori says quietly. "His patience - he can see I've gone through hell."

Ziana was just a baby when sect leaders chose the couple, both working as emergency medical technicians in Utah, to come to the West Texas ranch. The Jessops saw it as a privilege, a chance to flee Utah's persecution.

Now, four months since they retreated to this San Antonio home, they are planning their next move. They could go home to Utah. They could move into a cheaper home in San Antonio. Or they could return to the ranch - which, for now, seems too much of a risk. They fear more legal trouble from the state, or even another raid.

"So where do we go?" Joseph asks softly.

Unsettled, but resolute

On the ranch outside Eldorado, Russell Jessop, 6, wheels on an adult visitor who has just referred to him and his siblings as "kids."

"We're not kids," the freckle-faced boy says firmly, trying to suppress a smile.

"Those are baby goats," explains older brother Ephraim, 8.

Their father, Edson Jessop, 51, older half-brother to Joseph of the San Antonio household, can't help but grin.

"They got after [CPS], too, for calling them kids," Edson says, seeming to savor the memory while his sons scamper into the family's home, attached to a large, metal building that houses his furniture workshop.

As fall turns to winter, life has calmed at the sect's 1,700-acre ranch. Only a third of the roughly 440 children who lived there last spring are back - too few to fill a three-story schoolhouse. Men fan out to nearby cities to hang Sheetrock, pour cement and work construction gigs. Families moan about bills from lawyers.

And the indictments of sect men have unsettled many - though they pray judges and juries will "do the right thing," says Zavenda Young, 44, Edson's intense and industrious wife.

Zavenda - whose tidy, fluorescently lit kitchen boasts a restaurant-size mixer and a fruit-dryer from Cabela's - bakes, cans, cooks and sews. Aided by a dual-stitch sewing machine, she makes all of the family's clothes.

Food - wholesome, preferably with no chemicals - is a household priority. The smell of freshly baked bread greets midmorning visitors. Zavenda serves them homemade blueberry muffins, pineapple chunks and red grapes.

At noon, the boys dash home from the schoolhouse, 300 yards away, to join the family for a lunch of homemade sausage pizza with sprouted-wheat crust. It's served with Zavenda's spicy deer jerky and glasses of milk fresh from the ranch's dairy - followed by oatmeal raisin cookies and frosted pumpkin cookies.

Edson says his children have nightmares and want to sleep with their parents because of the raid and nearly six weeks spent in foster care. Two of the children stayed in Waco, the other two in Houston.

Still, while sect adults warn visitors the children may be "offish," the youngsters' reserve quickly melts.

During a tour of the ranch by pickup, Russell peers intently at some scribbled notes in a reporter's notebook.

"That's sloppy," he says.

While Edson and Zavenda use cellphones and the Internet, they choose not to have a TV. Edson says the family rises at 5:30 each morning and usually gathers for a song, a prayer and perhaps a short Scripture reading.

Citing the ongoing criminal investigation, Edson sidesteps questions about his marital history. But he says plural marriage is a key doctrine of his faith, one practiced on his father's side of the family for five generations.

"I'm not a bit ashamed of it," he says, ticking off ancestors who went to jail rather than forswear polygamy.

Later, cleaning up the kitchen, Zavenda weighs in.

"I'm here because I want to be," she says. "There's never force involved. If any [women] wanted to go anywhere else, they could, in the blink of an eye."

Emily Ramshaw reported from San Antonio; Robert T. Garrett reported from Eldorado, Texas.

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