Former members of the polygamist sect that was raided two years ago say they are encouraged by tough sentences handed down by courts in recent months, but said that the secretive group is as a strong as ever.
So far, four of the 12 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who were accused of child abuse have been convicted and sentenced to prison.
In the most recent court case, Merril Leroy Jessop, 35, was sentenced last month to 75 years after being convicting of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl who is believed to have been his child bride.
The eight remaining men will stand trial in the coming months, according to the Texas State Attorney's office.
"These convictions are a really big deal. They're game changers and it's significant," said Carolyn Jessop, who escaped from the FLDS sect in Colorado City, Ariz., seven years ago.
"But there is still a side to the FLDS that thinks they are invincible and that these trials are a joke and that if a few men go to prison for the cause, the group will still be fine," said Jessop. The group burst into the national spotlight after the April 3, 2008 raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. People were stunned not only by the charges of polygamy and child brides, but because of the pastel prairie clothes, braided hairstyles and submissive attitude of the ranch's women.
Carolyn Jessop fled the group and her husband, Merril Jessop Sr., who is one of the men still awaiting trial. In her book "Escape" about life within the FLDS, she described the group's life as one of total obedience to their men to the point that mothers willingly surrendered girls as young as 14 to be the brides of much older men.
Carolyn Jessop characterizes the recent 75-year prison sentence as "unbelievable," saying that the FLDS has believed for generations "that they live above the law." Even so, she says that unless the veil of secrecy that has long overshadowed the sect is lifted, the group will continue to thrive.
"If these men go to prison and don't say anything, [their convictions] might not have any impact on the group," she said. "The only way I can see it having a profound impact is if someone is willing to talk for a reduced sentence."
"[The sect] depends on secrecy," she said. "The minute the secrecy is taken away, then the crimes will have to be prosecuted."
"These men know what is going on at that ranch and in the entire community and they've witnessed the worst," she added.
Calls to Willie Jessop, the group's spokesman, were not immediately returned. A call into the sect's lawyer was not returned either.
Former Polygamist Say There's A Long Road to Justice
Mary Mackert, another former FLDS member who left the group and her six sister wives in 1984, agrees with Carolyn Jessop, and says that while the news of the convictions "makes her smile," she said there is much more to be done.
"There is a long road to go and a lot of legal battles that will have to be fought," said Mackert, referring to the allegations of child abuse and sexual abuse by FLDS leaders.
"These men get 75 years in prison, but their victims live with [the memories] for a lifetime," she said. Both Mackert and Jessop said the investigation of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in 2008 was successful in that it brought light to the crimes the members allegedly commit, but said it failed in terms of the children.
In the days following the raid, 439 children were taken from their parents and put into foster care, running up a tab for the state of Texas that exceeded $12 million in just 2009. Legal fees since then have not been calculated. All but one child has since been returned to the ranch.
"It broke my heart to see the judge turn those children back," said Mackert.
Jessop also questioned why the children were returned.
"When the state went in and took the kids, I thought once they interfered they had an obligation to follow through. They had an obligation and not just put the kids back in it and close their eyes. That to me was completely betrayal for these children," she said.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services declined to comment for this story. In previous media accounts, the agency has defended the raid and has said they would do it again if they received more reports of child abuse. The children were returned to the ranch due to a lack of evidence of abuse to those children.
"Because the state dropped the ball on the kids, the FLDS community was very much strengthened because inside, they feel like the sky is the limit and they're untouchable," said Carolyn Jessop, who still communicates with sect members, including family members.
Jessop Says FLDS Leaders Are Nervous About Exposure
Today, Mackert lives in Idaho and provides guidance to other women trying to leave the group while Jessop became the first woman ever to win a custody lawsuit against the FLDS, gaining custody of her eight children.
But both say that while they will never stop talking about their own experiences, current FDLS members are the ones that really have the power to end what they call a life of "emotional and physical torture."
"The people at the top [in the sect] are nervous," said Jessop. "They don't admit it to a lot of people, but they are."
"How could they not be nervous?" echoed Mackert. "It's becoming a reality that they could spend the rest of their lives behind bars."