Escape from polygamy

Vancouver Sun/December 3, 2005
By Daphne Bramham

Salt Lake City -- Carolyn Jessop plotted for months how to escape her polygamist marriage, get her eight children safely out of Colorado City, Ariz., and out of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"I had to have a window of opportunity because I was doing something that had never been done before," says Jessop. "I was going to take all of my children. Women had left before, but they only took their younger kids. But I had decided if I left, they were all coming with me."

It was complicated. Her oldest child, 15-year-old Arthur, had been working construction jobs outside the community since he was 12 and only came home on weekends. Her "husband" Merril Jessop frequently went away during the week. But rarely was Arthur home when Merril was away.

At 10 p.m. on April 21, 2003, the window opened.

One of Merril's six other wives told Carolyn that Merril had left for Salt Lake City and wouldn't be back until the following day. Arthur was at home because he'd had a dental appointment.

It was her best chance, but still a huge risk because Colorado City and its twin, Hildale, Utah, are controlled by the FLDS and its prophet Warren Jeffs. The church, through its United Effort Plan trust, owns almost all of the property in the border-straddling towns. And almost everyone in the community of about 8,000 is FLDS, including the police and the local judge.

In addition to the police, Jeffs has his own well-armed militia known as the God Squad, which watches the community day and night.

"It's not a situation that you can try [to escape] and fail because the consequences are horrific," she said.

If Jessop were to get caught, she knew that her children aged two to 15 would be taken from her. She would be shunned by the community and the local doctor -- also FLDS and loyal to the prophet -- would likely diagnose her as mentally ill, consigning her to a mental institution in Flagstaff, Ariz., where several other "rebellious" women from the community had been warehoused.

Jessop was 35 years old. Seventeen years earlier, she had been forced into an arranged marriage with the 50-year-old Merril Jessop who remains one of the most powerful men in the FLDS.

But that night with her husband away, Jessop went to her sister's house so her sister-wives could not eavesdrop on her telephone calls. She called police outside the twin towns asking for help.

"They said it was outside their jurisdiction and some other things. But it was just excuses."

She called people who had previously said they would help any women leaving the cult.

"That was bogus. Nobody wanted to help."

In desperation, she called her brother in Salt Lake City, who had left the cult a few years earlier. She begged him to rescue them. He promised to come on one condition: He would not risk getting caught by the local police or the God Squad.

He would drive all night and meet her at 5 a.m. at Canaan Corners, five kilometres out of town. But she had to get to Canaan Corners with the kids.

Again. So many complications.

"I stayed up all night and got two days' worth of clothes for the kids and myself together. I had $20. I decided I was just going to make a run for it."

Her kids slept scattered through the big house with their 46 half-siblings. She needed to wake them, get them dressed and into the van without her sister-wives raising the alarm with either their husband or the local police.

"I started getting them up at 4 and told them to dress quietly. But I got caught.

"I was getting my oldest daughter up when one of the other wives asked what I was doing. I said I was taking them to town to get family pictures taken. I said that Harrison had a doctor's appointment and I decided that because Arthur was home as well, we'd have pictures taken."

Her sister-wife Kathleen didn't buy it even though Harrison is severely handicapped. This is a society in which women can't take their children to the doctor without their husband's permission.

Kathleen called Merril in Salt Lake City. At 4:20 a.m., Merril Jessop called Carolyn's father -- Arthur Ray Blackmore, a relative of Winston Blackmore, the former bishop of Bountiful, B.C.

Merril asked Blackmore what his daughter was up to. Blackmore said he had no idea.

Jessop then called home and demanded to speak to Carolyn. Another wife paged Carolyn on the large home's intercom as Carolyn was frantically pushing the children into the van.

"The last thing I remember was taking Harrison off the oxygen and his feeding pump, putting him in the van and getting ready to drive away when I realized that Betty [her oldest daughter, who was 13] was gone. I just sat there for a moment: Do I take the seven kids and save them or do I go back in the house and try to get her?

"I decided that it had to be all or nothing. I went in and grabbed her. She was in her room sobbing. She said there is something wrong in what I'm doing. She asked why hadn't I told father. I just grabbed her. She was fighting me and crying."

As Carolyn struggled Betty into the van, inside the Jessop home there was chaos. But in all the confusion, somehow nobody called the police.

Had someone made that call, the police could have stopped Jessop. One way men keep their plural wives enslaved is by not insuring or licensing the vehicles they drive. The local police don't hassle them unless they get a call saying that a wife is doing something she shouldn't be. If that call comes, the cops then have a legal right to stop them.

One final complication: The fuel gauge was on empty.

Carolyn started driving as fast as she could. As they drove, her children began to realize what was happening.

"Betty went completely ballastic. She said, 'She's stealing us. We belong to the prophet, we don't belong to you.' And I just told her, 'In the real world, you belong to me.' "

Some of the others started to cry.

Just as the lights of Jessop's brother's vehicle came into view, the van coughed to a stop, out of gas. She shepherded her children one more time and they ran the last few hundred metres.

"It was like jumping off a cliff."

Jessop had no idea where they were going or how they would survive. The only certainty was that her husband would come after her and demand custody of the children.

Forty-five minutes out of Salt Lake City, Jessop talked to Dr. Dan Fischer on the phone. (Fischer, who has made a fortune through his chemical teeth-whitener called Ultradent, has spent several million dollars helping others leaving polygamy.)

Fischer told Jessop to come and stay at one of his five guesthouses.

But they didn't stay long. Merril Jessop was looking for them. So they went into hiding.

With Fischer's help, Carolyn got a lawyer and a protective order against her violent and abusive husband before moving back to guesthouse for five weeks. From there, they went to a transition house for a month, straining its resources because few shelters are set up for such large families.

But by the end of June, a court granted her sole custody of the children. Her husband was granted standard visitation rights -- something that Carolyn later had got changed with the help of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Two-and-a-half years after her dramatic dash for freedom, Jessop gets no child support, only state assistance which is just enough to cover the rent. For everything else, she relies on donations -- clothes, money for power bills, gift cards for gas and money to pay for counselling for the children. Month-to-month, she never knows whether they'll make it through.

The only safety net she has are Harrison's substantial health problems. The Utah government is bound by law to ensure that he is kept safe and that means having power, heat and a roof over his head.

Ironically, it's also Harrison's illness that helped give her the courage to escape.

Born with cancer, her son spent nearly three years in hospital. Jessop's husband and others in the community blamed her for Harrison's health problems telling her it was because she wasn't righteous. At the hospital, "outsiders" who she'd been taught to believe were evil, helped both Harrison and her to cope with his handicap.

But while she had some idea of what to expect, her children did not.

"I wanted it so bad, but for the children, they had their world ripped apart. I was an apostate and I was insane. That's what they were told. And things were very terrifying for them."

Two weeks out of Colorado City, the children were sent to public school.

They are all very bright and counsellors advised her to put the children into age-appropriate grades, rather than putting them in classes at their appropriate grade level. It wasn't easy.

Arthur, the oldest son, initially refused to go to school. He'd been forced to quit school and had worked on construction crews since he was 12. Suddenly he was in high school in a strange city and didn't have a clue about some of the subjects.

When Arthur refused to go to school, Jessop called the police. Utah law requires children to go to school until they are 18. So, for the first few weeks, Arthur went to high school with a police escort.

Now, he's on the honour roll. He will graduate from high school in June and have his pilot's licence. Instead of a life as a low-paid labourer, Arthur plans to be a commercial pilot.

For the first two years, six of Jessop's children were in counselling.

Betty, the oldest, still wants to return to the FLDS and Colorado City.

"She's still pretty hard core. But I still have her for two years. And even if she goes back when she's 18, at least she will have her high school diploma. She will not get married under-age and she will have a mother on the outside who will give her help if she needs it."

Jessop believes education is the key to ending polygamy, which she believes is a destructive and abusive way of life that demands strict obedience not just from women, but from men.

"They make claims that it is all about free choice and consenting adults. But women don't have a choice," she says. "I don't know of one woman there [in Colorado City/Hildale] who has not been pushed to the point that she would do something different if she had options. But they don't have options . . . And if the government is not going to prosecute polygamy, then at least they should make sure that women do have free choice."

When she left, Jessop says, at least a third of the women in the community were on the anti-depressant Prozac and "lots had had nervous breakdowns."

By example, Jessop hopes to show women still living polygamy that they can be successful on the outside to counteract "that crap that they tell you about women who leave ending up on the street as prostitutes."

Although she is trying to get on with her life, Jessop says she can't entirely leave that world behind.

"I taught Grade 2 there for seven years and since I've walked away many of those precious little girls are married, may were married at 14 and I'm just sick about that."

So Jessop is becoming increasingly outspoken about polygamy and the cult. She has chided the Utah and Arizona governments for failing to provide adequate services -- particularly adequate housing -- for people coming out of the cult. And she plans to write a book to raise the public's awareness of just how difficult life is within the FLDS.

She has also agreed to have her name put forward for the advisory board to the $100-million United Effort Plan trust that is now in the hands of a court-appointed special fiduciary. Judge Denise Lindberg will choose an advisory board later this month.

If Jessop is appointed, it will be another first. Since the trust was established in 1942, a woman has never had a voice in how those possessions are used, divided up or shared.

Even her powerful husband never made it to the UEP board despite being a nephew to former prophet Leroy Johnson, nephew to former bishop Fred Jessop and related by the marriage of 14 of his daughters to prophet Rulon Jeffs. (After Rulon Jeffs died in 2002, most of Jessop's daughters were re-assigned to the new prophet, Rulon's son Warren.)

But right now, Jessop's life revolves around her children's needs, trying to cram way too much into every single day and figuring out how to make ends meet.

Being a single mom to eight kids and living on welfare is enough to sink most people, but not Jessop.

"As bad as it got [since leaving], there's never been a moment or a second that I have considered going back. The worst thing out here can never be as bad as what I experienced there. Life there was really bad."

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