Flora's War

Flora Jessop Knows What It's Like to Flee an
Insular and Polygamous World. She Also Knows It Will Take
More Than Distance to Be Truly Free.

Los Angeles Times Magazine/August 1, 2004
By Matthew Heller

You have to go out of your way to find the place Flora Jessop once called home. Colorado City, Ariz., and the adjoining, indistinguishable town of Hildale, Utah, are perched in a remote valley divided by the dry wash of Short Creek. The towering vermilion edifice of Canaan Mountain is just to the north, the gaping abyss of the Grand Canyon to the south. The only way into this valley is a lonely two-lane blacktop.

Getting out, some say, is even harder to do. Almost all of Short Creek Valley's residents are members of a fundamentalist Mormon church that controls how they live and where they believe they'll go after they die. As a key tenet of its faith, and a means of control, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints enforces the practice of polygamy, marrying off girls as young as 15 to adult males for whom multiple, or plural, wives are considered a passport to salvation.

Polygamy is illegal in every state and has been condemned for more than 100 years by the mainstream Mormon Church. But the fundamentalist church here has gone largely undisturbed by law enforcement for 50 years, growing into the largest concentration of polygamists in the nation, a theocracy of more than 5,800 people now ruled from a secure Hildale compound by Prophet Warren Jeffs, who teaches: "A man can go with his wives to be a god in his own right. No man can become a god unless he has more wives than one."

Jessop grew up in Hildale, one of 28 children whom her polygamous father had with the first two of his three wives. At 16, she became one of the few teenage girls to escape the church, running away after marrying a cousin. Now 35, this wiry, waif-like woman lives 350 miles from Colorado City with her second husband, a former Marine, and two teenage daughters in a scruffy Phoenix home. But she has not left the church far behind. In fact, she devotes almost every waking moment to exposing the church as a hotbed of child abuse and helping the community's girls and women escape from the polygamous life she fled. "This is not a religion," she said of the church on a recent TV news show. "This is terrorism."

Frustrated by a failed attempt to prevent her teenage sister Ruby from having to marry an older man, Jessop founded Help the Child Brides, which provides aid to "victims of polygamy." She also is executive director of the Los Angeles-based Child Protection Project. She labored in relative obscurity until last January, when with a Phoenix television news crew along for the ride, she drove from Phoenix to a "safe house" near Colorado City and picked up two teenagers, Fawn Holm and Fawn Broadbent, who had run away together from their church families.

The rescue was a solo endeavor; Jessop believes social workers and government officials have failed to protect the church's children. "The authorities don't want to do anything about this because how do they fix a problem they allowed to happen?" she fumes. In the resulting broadcast story, Jessop came across as a latter-day, Wild West version of Harriet Tubman.

Other media, from ABC News to the Salt Lake Tribune, quickly reported the flight of the Fawns, and the telegenic Jessop made the rounds of the national talk shows. "She's become a rock star," says Linda Binder, an Arizona state senator whose district includes Colorado City. Some observers of the church predicted that other girls would follow Holm and Broadbent to freedom.

That case, however, sparked an anti-Jessop backlash. The girls ran away from their foster home after a judge, at the request of Holm's parents, ordered Jessop to sever contact with the two girls. Arizona's attorney general accused her of scaring them off, and the weekly Phoenix New Times described her as a publicity-hungry "fanatic" whose "demands to have control over someone else's children are becoming eerily similar to the dictatorial attitude of her sworn nemesis, Warren Jeffs."

Rodney Parker, an attorney and de facto church spokesman, describes Jessop as a "vigilante" who has a "very personal hatred for the fundamentalist community that's unjustified. I think she is exploiting these young children for her personal gain. The things she says about the community simply aren't true."

Still, Jessop persists because there are children, she says, who are "still trapped inside" the valley where she once lived. And she persists because "every time we can save a child, it's saving a little piece of me too, repairing a little bit of the damage."

Jessop likes to say of herself - so often it could be her mantra - "I'm just a polyg from Colorado City." In one sense, she's referring to the fifth-grade education she received in the church-controlled school system. She remains the opposite of slick and sophisticated; she's rough around the edges, speaks in a country twang and chain-smokes Camels. There's a street-urchin quality to her, accentuated by her wafer-thin physique, high cheekbones and dark hair.

But Jessop also is suggesting that you can never escape polygamy. Once a "polyg," always a "polyg" - and that makes you a little different, maybe even a little crazy, especially if you're from a place where polygamy is the foundation of a severe and insular faith-based culture.

You can sense the imprint of that culture on others who have fled the community. It's there on Laurene Cooke Jessop, a distant cousin of Flora who once was a plural wife and bore her husband five children. After leaving the church and spending time in a mental hospital, she is now, with Jessop's help, seeking permanent custody of her three daughters and two sons.

"I'm still dealing with the guilt of leaving the church," Laurene says. "I'm afraid the Lord will strike me dead."

Polygamy also rankles Pam Black, a mother of 13 children whose husband church elders deemed unworthy of multiple wives because, she says, he couldn't "control" the one he already had. Shunned as an "apostate," she now lives in a canyon above Hildale, and bluntly describes her marriage as "35 years of hell."

For Laurene Jessop and Black, relatively recent refugees, the wounds are still raw, the emotions still raging. They don't have Flora Jessop's years of distance and hard outer shell. But all three women are trying to find themselves in an "outside" world that is very different from the one they left behind. It's as if they're poised on the rim of Canaan Mountain, seeing the wider world beyond but with Colorado City still large and vivid in the foreground.

A visit to colorado city-Hildale is an unsettling experience. If it weren't for the moms driving minivans and SUVs, you might think you had traveled back to a 19th century Mormon settlement. Women and girls wear ankle-length, pioneer-style dresses. Their hair, which they are forbidden to cut, is woven into braids and put in a bun; the boys look like extras from "The Waltons" in their checked shirts and long pants. In a community where TV is taboo, there are no satellite dishes or video stores. The only recreational facilities appear to be a small zoo and a park.

What is most unusual about the community are the homes. To accommodate their large and ever-expanding families, church men commonly build houses in excess of 3,500 square feet. According to the latest census, a third of the homes have more than nine rooms. But many houses have unfinished stucco, or empty spaces where windows should be, or bare yards. That's because the United Effort Plan, a church-operated trust, owns virtually every square foot of the community and doesn't allow its "tenants-at-will" to take out property loans. So they finance home construction out of their own pockets, and if they run out of funds, they can't finish the job.

The 48-year-old Jeffs succeeded his father, Rulon, as prophet in 2002. Rarely seen in public, he lives with at least a dozen wives in a compound shielded by an 8-foot wall and covering an entire block on Hildale's principal artery. From here, Jeffs enforces the rigid orthodoxy of his one "true" church. Dissenters face excommunication, which means that they can lose their homes and even their wives and children, who must submit to the prophet's will or themselves be expelled.

Prominent followers of Jeffs in the church's all-male priesthood occupy key civic positions. One is the mayor of Hildale. Another is the Colorado City police chief. There are few nongovernment jobs in town. But families make the most of public assistance - to the tune of more than $10 million a year from Arizona alone. The church calls it "bleeding the beast."

The prophet is the only matchmaker. "Both the man and the woman must have their marriage [arranged] through the prophet," he teaches. A polygamous marriage is a "spiritual" marriage, sanctioned by God, if not the state.

Fundamentalist Mormons first settled the Short Creek Valley in the 1920s. They were part of a breakaway movement that dates to 1890, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially commanded members to abandon polygamy. But belief in plural marriage is central to Mormon fundamentalism and the Short Creek settlers found a good place to practice it, 200 miles from the nearest Arizona authorities.

In 1936, the community formed a trust to coordinate its development in a communal fashion. A few years later, the trust became the United Effort Plan. By the 1940s, Short Creek had a population of about 400, and the polygamists were skilled at using the Arizona-Utah border to avoid police officers trying to enforce anti-polygamy laws.

The border-hopping didn't save the church from the infamous Short Creek raid of 1953. Arizona authorities, acting on the orders of Gov. Howard Pyle, arrested 122 polygamists and declared 263 children to be wards of the state. But the raid backfired after the public shuddered at newspaper photographs of wailing toddlers being separated from their mothers. The arrested church members were soon back home, Pyle was voted out of office and law enforcement has been reluctant to intervene ever since.

By the time flora jessop was born in June 1969, the church had rooted itself in the dry soil as tenaciously as the Mormon tea bushes that dot the landscape. On the Utah side of Short Creek, Hildale had recently been incorporated, and the Arizona side had been renamed Colorado City. The then-prophet, Leroy "Uncle Roy" Johnson, reigned over an empire that now includes interests in construction, real estate, hotels and restaurants, and banking.

Jessop belonged to one of the community's largest and most prominent clans. Like other girls, she was taught from an early age to "keep sweet no matter what," which Warren Jeffs defines as keeping "the spirit of God through prayer and obedience." To Jessop, it meant subordinating yourself without protest to the patriarchy.

In her early teens, she was already struggling for independence. Once after a church service, a local cop who had five wives approached her. "He said, 'I can't wait till you're mine and I can tame you,' " she recalls. "The only thing I could think of saying was, 'Before I'd let you touch me, I'd kill you and myself.' "

At 16, Jessop made her getaway. Over the years, she has told conflicting stories about how this happened. What is clear is that she brought charges of sexual abuse against her father. A judge, apparently doubting her credibility, dismissed the case and the state placed her in the home of Fred Jessop, an uncle and a senior advisor to "Uncle Roy." In May 1986, she entered into an arranged marriage with a 19-year-old cousin, Philip Jessop. But within weeks she took off on her own for Kansas City, Mo.

Jessop was not prepared for life on the outside - "naive to the point of being socially retarded," as she puts it. She also was tormented that she might have damned herself to hell by fleeing the church. Her untidy life during that period speaks to the difficulty of adjusting to the outside world.

"I almost killed myself on cocaine," she remembers. Jessop had boyfriends and, after giving birth to a daughter from one relationship, moved to Phoenix, where she paid the bills by working as a topless dancer. She divorced Philip in 1996 - they never reunited after she fled - and married a former U.S. Marine mechanic who brought his own daughter into their home.

Despite her apostasy, Jessop stayed in touch with some members of her huge family. In May 2001, she learned that her 14-year-old sister Ruby had run away to an older brother's home after Prophet Rulon Jeffs ordered her to marry a stepbrother. Before Jessop could arrange for Ruby to move to Phoenix, however, Ruby allegedly was abducted and taken to church elder Fred Jessop's home. When social workers interviewed Ruby a month later, she denied being married and was returned to Hildale.

Jessop hasn't been able to speak to Ruby since. She says the authorities did not adequately investigate whether Ruby had been abused. Mostly, she blames herself for being unable to save "the first person I gave my word to that I would save."

The experience persuaded Jessop to start Help the Child Brides in 2001, though she spends most of her time now working for the Child Protection Project, which provides financial support and other services to polygamy refugees. Funding for that group is tight -about $7,000 in donations so far this year. Jessop's bungalow in a blue-collar neighborhood of north Phoenix is crammed with documents, transcripts and pamphlets. "This is about every Ruby that's in there that wants to be free," she says.

It's also about sabotaging the well-oiled polygamy machine. The prophet, she argues, controls the community's men through his distribution of wives. The more girls she can get out, the fewer he has to satisfy the demand. Under Arizona and Utah law, girls under the age of 16 can be married with their parents' consent validated by a court order.

Jessop also knows that public scrutiny will help her cause. She got her first national publicity in March 2002, when Marie Claire magazine profiled her and two other refugees. The other women wore straight hair and modest sweaters for their photo shoots, but Jessop, with her permed hair and black leather jacket, could have passed for a biker chick. The article got the attention of Linda Walker, founder of the Child Protection Project, who was looking for a former church insider to serve as a spokesperson. Flora "didn't want this," Walker says. "I pushed her into it."

The national media have treated the church and its polygamous lifestyle as an eccentricity, in part because the idea of men having multiple wives lends itself to flippancy. In her new role, Jessop began emphasizing the seriousness of the problem, providing quotes for everyone from the National Enquirer (polygamy "gives you the right to rape children," she told the tabloid) to Jon Krakauer, author of "Under the Banner of Heaven," a study of polygamous sects published last year. But it was with the two Fawns that she pulled off her first real media coup.

On Jan. 10, the girls fled from Colorado City to a safe house in nearby St. George, Utah. Both feared they would be married off against their will. "I don't like the religion, not having control over my life," Broadbent says. Jessop was on the road within hours, the crew from Phoenix's KTVK station in tow. She feared being arrested for kidnapping, but that didn't stop her.

"I don't use the bridge, I just jump across the canal," she says. "When it's the lives of these children that's on the line, I don't have time to walk across the bridge."

Jessop doesn't have much use for government social workers, attorneys or other bureaucrats involved in child protection. She even tapes her phone conversations with them in case their recollection of the dialogue differs from hers. "Every kid that comes out of there screaming for help, you guys do nothing but turn them back over," she berated one Utah official, according to a transcript of a June 2001 call. But after they arrived in Phoenix, Jessop brought Broadbent and Holm to the Arizona Department of Child Protective Services. "We thought the state was going to do right by those girls," Walker says.

Officials agreed that the girls could stay at a foster home arranged by Jessop while their futures were decided. But one meeting with a social worker didn't go well, and the girls' trust in the state suffered when they learned that their parents had their new address, which they thought was confidential. The final straw seems to have been a Phoenix judge's decision to bar Jessop from having any contact with the girls.

On Feb. 12, the girls, convinced that they were about to be returned to Colorado City, fled again. Two days later, Broadbent wrote in a letter to Jessop and their foster mother: "I do not want to go back because I will be locked up and even married."

Things have worked out for Broadbent. In May, her parents agreed to put her in the care of Carl Holm, an older brother of the other Fawn who fled Colorado City himself 20 years ago and now lives with his wife, Joni, in Salt Lake City. But Fawn Holm, whose parents still want her back, remains in hiding at an undisclosed location, largely deprived of the freedoms she was hoping to enjoy. "She's in a horrible limbo," Joni Holm says.

Jessop, meanwhile, has had her motives and methods questioned by government officials, journalists and other activists. "It's gotten nastier and nastier," complains Walker. Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard has said that the girls were in no danger of being reunited with their parents, suggesting that Jessop fanned their fears without reason. "She's really undermined the state," he told New Times, which accused Jessop of using the two runaways as "props in a media campaign," and described her as "misguided and devious."

Pennie Petersen, an anti-polygamy activist who grew up with Jessop, believes Jessop has been swept up in "the TV interviews, the fame and the glory," and that the Fawns became her "poster girls." "She loves the attention. She's craved it her whole life." According to Petersen, Jessop has alienated officials who could help her cause. "Nobody wants anything to do with Flora."

Walker sees jealousy among other activists. "[Jessop] has been in the media a lot," she says. "They want to be Flora." Perhaps Jessop, with her lack of appreciation for the formal procedures and the bureaucratic nuances, was impatient, and perhaps she did give Broadbent and Holm some misleading advice.

She "wants to go in there guns blazing, get everybody out," says Binder, the most vocal critic of the church in the Arizona Legislature. "It's just not feasible." But Binder won't fault her tactics. "If I was in her shoes, I'd probably be doing the same thing."

The exposure has paid off, making government officials and the media take her cause more seriously. "She's doing it the best way she knows how under the circumstances," says Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group of former polygamous wives who lobby against the practice. "There's no other way except to quit, and she can't do that."

One recent morning, Jessop returned home with Laurene Jessop after visiting government agencies to get family assistance and housing for Laurene and her children. No glamour or TV cameras here, just a lot of hard legwork.

Laurene is Jessop's latest project. Four years ago, Laurene waived custody of her children while she was in a Flagstaff, Ariz., mental hospital, too drugged up, she says, to have any idea what she was signing. In January, her former husband was excommunicated from the church, leaving his first wife, Marie Jessop, in charge of the children. While the girls were visiting Laurene in Flagstaff in April, she decided to take them to Phoenix and file for custody. A judge awarded Laurene emergency custody of all five children (the boys remain in Colorado City) after her attorney alleged that the children were being abused.

The oldest daughter, 15-year-old Luanne, greeted Laurene in Jessop's living room. Luanne is about the same age Jessop was when she fled. Her blond hair still hung in braids to the small of her back. But she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and washable tattoos decorated the pale skin of her bare arms. "They're not going to want you back now," Jessop told her. "The worst thing you can do is mark your body up." Then she added: "Next to associating with me."

Later that day, Jessop was asked what difference she can make when there are so many girls like Luanne still living in Colorado City. "If I can save one single child, I've succeeded," she replies. "If I save Luanne, I've succeeded." And as the sun set on another day of desert heat, Jessop may be a little closer to saving herself.

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