Underage marriages arranged with polygamists at motel

Associated Press/November 20, 2006
By Jennifer Dobner

Caliente, Nevada - Room 15 at the Caliente Hot Springs Motel seems like an unlikely place for a wedding. There are no flower-covered arbors, pews or candles. It is an apartment-style room with a kitchenette, a bed, a dresser, a table and a couch.

But it was in Room 15 that dozens of weddings took place between underage girls and men from a polygamist sect, church insiders say.

The sect's charismatic leader, Warren Jeffs, has been charged with rape as an accomplice for his alleged role in arranging one of those marriages - that of a 14-year-old girl who claims she was forced to wed her older first cousin in 2001.

Jeffs, the 50-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, will be in a Utah court Tuesday for a hearing on whether prosecutors have enough evidence to try him. If he is tried and convicted, the man some 10,000 followers revere as a prophet could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Jeffs was captured in a traffic stop outside Las Vegas in August after nearly two years on the run. He was one of the nation's 10 most-wanted fugitives.

According to authorities, the bride, identified in court papers as Jane Doe No. 4, stood dressed in white in Room 15 and said, "I do," sealing the marriage with a secret handshake. Prosecutors say the marriage was then consummated back in Hildale, Utah, where members of the sect live.

The girl told Jeffs she didn't want to marry, and later begged to be released from the union, saying she did not like marital relations, authorities said. But Jeffs said the marriage was her religious duty and threatened her with the loss of salvation, according to authorities.

The FLDS claims to be a fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church. But the Mormons disavow any connection and renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Jeffs' attorneys have not responded to requests for interviews. But at hearing in September, attorney Walter Bugden said Jeffs believes he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs.

Carolyn Jessop, a former sect member who used to run the motel, said that once or twice a month, beginning in the spring of 1999, she would get a telephone call telling her to plan for a weekend of sect weddings. Some insiders say as many as 10 such weddings were held in a single day.

Wedding parties and church elders would arrive in a caravan of cars about midmorning, not long after checkout time for guests.

"They did not want anybody on the property," said Jessop, whose husband, Merrill Jessop, owned the 18-room motel with her father for seven years until it was sold in 2004.

The drive to Caliente from Hildale is 160 miles, most of it on a two-lane road through the mountains and across the desert. But sect leaders believed Caliente was a safe place - "a way to go under the radar screen" - because Utah and Arizona were passing legislation to address underage marriage and threatening prosecution, Jessop said.

Utah later passed a law making it a felony to arrange a marriage between a minor and an older married person. Arizona has enacted a similar law.

At the motel, the girls usually arrived with their parents, including their fathers' multiple wives. The bridegroom might bring his own wives. In some ceremonies, the first wife might hold the young bride's hand and place it gently in the groom's as a symbolic gesture that she accepted the new wife into the family, sect insiders say.

After the ceremony, sect elders would share a meal cooked by some of the women.

"I can't imagine the trauma that some of these younger girls must have gone through," said Jessop, who left the sect and her husband in 2003.

No charges have been brought against her or her husband. She said she would help set the room up but would not stay around for the ceremonies.

Insiders say the newlyweds would promptly leave and presumably consummate their unions back in Hildale or neighboring Colorado City, Ariz. - dusty twin towns populated by women in long, pioneer dresses and men in long sleeves and buttoned-up collars.

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