After Fleeing Polygamist Community, an Opportunity for Influence

New York Times/June 29, 2005
By Nick Madigan

Hildale, Utah -- Carolyn Jessop escaped in the dead of night, her eight frightened children in tow.

The town she fled had been her home for her entire 35 years. It was the nation's largest polygamous community, run by an offshoot of the Mormon Church that she described as a "dangerous and destructive cult" that oppressed its women and children.

"Women in the polygamist culture are looked at as property, as a piece of meat," said Ms. Jessop, formerly one of seven wives of a motel owner, whom she was forced to marry when she was 18 and he was 50. "We're not looked upon as human beings with rights. The women are basically baby-producers. It's a difficult thing to break away from. You don't contest it."

But in a twist that might have seemed inconceivable when she ran away two years ago, Ms. Jessop and another escapee, Margaret Cooke, stand poised to join the board of a sect trust that owns almost all the property here and in adjoining Colorado City, Ariz. The board, like everything else, has always been run exclusively by men.

That women might share power with men over a place known for female submission - the makeup of the board will be finalized in a court hearing on July 21 - is almost revolutionary in the communities, home to as many as 8,000 sect members.

Evoking the wagon-train days of centuries gone by, almost every female here wears long braids and is covered from neck to ankles, usually in faded cotton dresses. Despite the searing heat, both sexes must wear long underwear. Men wear long pants and long-sleeved button-up shirts, and they cannot have facial hair.

Sect members do not talk to outsiders, and children are taught to run from people with cameras. Sometimes, men in pickup trucks accost photographers and threaten to destroy their equipment.

"Things were getting scary, spiraling out of control," Ms. Jessop said from her home in Salt Lake City.

Since she fled, much has changed for the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had existed largely without interference from authorities.

The group's self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, is a fugitive, indicted this month on sexual-abuse charges that he forced a 16-year-old girl to marry a 28-year-old married man. Opponents of Mr. Jeffs say he ordered hundreds of such unions, often between girls barely in their teens and men decades older.

One of his nephews, Brent Jeffs, 22, has sued him, claiming that Mr. Jeffs and two brothers repeatedly raped him in a church lavatory when he was a boy in the 1980's, with the explanation that the ordeal would help him become a man. The three told him that sodomy was "God's work," according to the suit, and warned that he would suffer the "pain of eternal damnation" if he told anyone.

A month ago, Arizona authorities raided the offices of the Colorado City Unified School District, a one-school operation controlled by Mr. Jeffs, as part of a criminal investigation into the misappropriation of millions of dollars of public money.

And last Wednesday, a probate judge in Salt Lake City, in suits over property rights, stripped Mr. Jeffs and several of his followers of power over the church trust, created in 1942 and called the United Effort Plan.

The judge is expected to replace the existing board with Ms. Jessop and Ms. Cooke and several banished male church members.

The women are supremely aware of the irony, though they have no illusions about immediately changing years of entrenched beliefs. But both vowed to end the practice of tossing people out of their homes, which was done when residents fell out of favor and Mr. Jeffs "reassigned" wives to new husbands.

"The board needed someone who loved the community and loved the people enough to protect them," said Ms. Cooke, who left in 1994, when she was 35, and settled in Salt Lake City. Ms. Cooke had eight children with her husband, a construction worker whom she was ordered to marry when she was 16 and he was 22. She barely knew him, and she divorced him in 1995.

At first, Ms. Cooke had no interest in joining the trust's board, she said, but then realized it might help the women who remain faithful to the sect's doctrines on polygamous marriages. The fundamentalist community here evolved after the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City officially renounced polygamy in 1890.

The stalwarts here, Ms. Cooke said, include her 26-year-old daughter. "She's totally going off on me," Ms. Cooke said. "She's still a part of it."

Ms. Cooke said most people here see the changes in the board as "a threat to Warren, who in their opinion is the prophet, and if you do anything to him, you're fighting God."

Mr. Jeffs, 48, a proponent of the credo that a man must have at least three wives to enter the "celestial kingdom," began to assume control in 1995, after his father, Rulon Jeffs, the previous prophet, had a stroke.

Former church members said Mr. Jeffs, a lanky, bespectacled man with a quiet voice and a penetrating stare, had as many as 70 wives of all ages. Almost all lived in a walled compound here that had surveillance cameras and was patrolled by armed guards.

The Hildale compound was quiet on Thursday, and many of the wall-mounted cameras that were apparent last year seemed to have been removed. Mr. Jeffs exacted tithes from his followers here and in Texas, Mexico and British Columbia. The local faithful dropped their envelopes of money into a slot in the wall.

His whereabouts are unknown, although many speculate that he is in Canada.

Since the indictment and Mr. Jeffs's disappearance, his surrogates appear to have cleaned out some of the businesses in town that are sect property. The newly denuded buildings include a potato processing plant and a chicken hatchery; other buildings have been removed entirely.

"Warren is starting to lose his grip on this place," said Gary Engels, a former detective in Adams County, Colo., who was brought out of retirement last year by the district attorney in Mohave County, Ariz., to investigate allegations of child abuse in the community.

Mr. Engels said authorities had failed by not looking into child abuse here years ago, although he acknowledged the difficulty in gleaning information from people who are taught that outsiders are apostates.

With the help of Sam Brower, a private investigator, Mr. Engels assembled enough evidence to result in the indictment against Mr. Jeffs. Other charges are being contemplated against some of his surrogates.

"Marrying a 14-year-old girl to a 50-year-old man is child abuse," Mr. Engels said, adding that once the wives are pregnant, "they're really trapped."

Lori Chatwin was the first local woman to speak publicly against Mr. Jeffs from her home here, in January 2004, rather than from exile. "It's a slow process," she said, "for his people to come out from under Warren's iron fist."

Ms. Chatwin and her husband, Ross Chatwin, a monogamous couple who have six children, won a court battle with the church trust, which tried to evict them for speaking out.

Ms. Chatwin's frankness has fractured relations with some of her relatives.

"The more wives you have, the more righteous you are," she said. "I'm not anti-polygamy under the right circumstances, but all those other crimes - the child abuse, the enforced marriages - hide in the cracks."

The authorities in Utah and Arizona conceded that the legal actions have been a long time coming.

"In the past, because of their remote location and their unusual beliefs, they have been left alone," said Terry Goddard, the Arizona attorney general. But in recent months, he said, largely as a result of news media attention, "there's been a level of scrutiny that didn't exist before."

That is small consolation to Pennie Petersen, 35, who ran away from Hildale at 14.

"This has been happening for 100 years," said Ms. Petersen, now a homemaker in Phoenix with five children. "My aunt Jeannine was forced into a marriage when she was 9 years old," she added, figuring the date as 61 years ago.

"They wanted to marry me off to a guy who was 48 - I was going to be his fifth bride," she said. Ms. Petersen, whose two younger sisters were married at 12 and 14, said she had tried to get the authorities to listen to her story years ago.

"I've been shouting this from the rooftops," she said. "I called the state agencies; pretty soon they weren't returning my calls. When a guy is in there sleeping with a 9-year-old girl, there's a problem. If I sacrifice my daughter on an altar and say God made me do it, do I not still go to jail?"

The few women who have left and are speaking out may serve as an example to those who remain, Ms. Petersen said.

"There's a lot of women saying, 'See? If she can do it, I can,' " she said. "What's awesome is that by getting these couple of cases, it's just snowballed. Before, no one would dare fight. These women need to know that you are not going to burn in hell if you leave."

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