Two women who found the strength to defy polygamy

One testifies against 'prophet' Warren Jeffs, the other feels her pain

Vancouver Sun/November 25, 2006
By Daphne Bramham

St. George, Utah -- Sara Hammon wept in a Utah courtroom this week as another young woman testified how she was forced at age 14 to marry her 19-year-old first cousin by Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"It [the testimony] ripped my heart out," Hammon said.

Eighteen years ago, Hammon was also 14, living in the FLDS town of Hildale, Utah and engaged to be married.

But Hammon escaped, unlike the young woman who is the state's star witness against Jeffs who is charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice. Jeffs has an estimated 15,000 followers, including about 500 who live in seclusion in Bountiful, B.C. Another 700 or so fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful follow Winston Blackmore. The woman, who is now 20 and pregnant, spent four hours testifying against Jeffs at a preliminary hearing this week. The hearing resumes Dec. 14.

Jeffs, 50, is in nearby Purgatory Correctional Centre, where he's been held since his arrest in August. He'd been a fugitive for more than two years and was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted along with Osama bin Laden. In addition to the Utah charges, he's facing six Arizona charges for sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.

The young woman's testimony included an explanation of FLDS teachings. She said girls in the polygamous cult are taught that their only link to God is through men -- their fathers, then their husbands and ultimately, the prophet, who is the embodiment of God on Earth.

They are taught that when they marry, they must submit unquestioningly to their husbands' will. If men make bad decisions, it is because their wives are not praying hard enough or aren't pure enough.

They aren't taught anything about sex. Even a month after her marriage in April 2001, the 14-year-old had no idea how babies were made.

She was in Grade 9 in April 2001 when her stepfather told her the prophet had arranged for her marriage later that week.

Eighteen years ago, Hammon was also assigned by the prophet, who was also her father Marion Hammon. She had asked to be married to get out of the family home where she says scarcely a day went by that she wasn't sexually or physically abused by her father or someone else in the family.

When she went to her father, she started by telling him her name. She was one of 75 children. Her father was 83.

"He said, 'Can you cook? Can you clean? Are you ready to be a mother? Have you started your period?' I said yes."

Hammon was assigned to an 18-year-old boy and the wedding date was set for just after her 15th birthday.

"I didn't know him that well and he didn't want to marry me ... And I was 14. I was not old enough to know what I wanted."

But the biggest difference between Hammon and Jane Doe, the woman testifying against Jeffs, is that Hammon had another option.

She had a married sister who had left the group and was living in St. George, less than an hour's drive from Hildale. Hammon stayed there on weekends and started babysitting for the neighbours. Before she turned 15, Hammon asked the neighbours if she could live with them and be a nanny to their children. They agreed.

Utah's witness had no options. Her father had been kicked out of the FLDS two years earlier. The witness, her mother and her younger siblings were uprooted from their Salt Lake City home and reassigned to 88-year-old Fred Jessop, who already had 15 wives and dozens of children living in his 40-bedroom house.

They were told to treat their excommunicated father as if he were dead.

Calling him for help was not an option. Even had she contacted him, she had no money and no means to make the six-hour trip from Hildale to Salt Lake City.

When told of her assignment marriage, the girl pleaded with her new father to at least delay the wedding until she was 16. He refused.

She went to Rulon Jeffs, the ailing prophet whose work was being done by his son, Warren. Rulon told the girl to follow her heart, Warren told her that her heart was in the wrong place and that to refuse the marriage was to defy God's will.

She went tearful and terrified to her mother.

"My mother talked me into doing what I needed to do. She told me that the prophet knew best. She said ... she had no power to change it.

"I felt totally powerless, I felt trapped. I did everything I could do to change it, but nothing worked. I was scared because I didn't have anywhere else to go. I felt if I didn't do what I was told I would forever pay the consequences ... and I would never be able to go to heaven."

The marriage took place in a motel owned by FLDS members in Caliente, Nev. The girl refused to hold the groom's hand. Warren Jeffs took it and placed in the groom's. When he asked if she took this man to be her husband, she hung her head and refused to say anything. He asked again. Nothing. Jeffs ordered her mother to stand beside her and hold her hand.

He asked a third time and when the silence became unbearable, the girl said, "Okay, I do."

Over the next three years, the young woman went to Jeffs several times asking to be released from the marriage. She told him that her husband was touching her inappropriately and wouldn't stop when she said no. He told her to obey her husband, who said sexual intercourse was her duty as a wife.

Jeffs told her to have children. That would change everything.

She was pregnant in November 2003 when she went to Bountiful to visit her sister, who at 17 had been assigned to marry a Canadian FLDS member.

There, the young woman had a miscarriage that required months of recuperation. She didn't want to go back to Hildale, but her mother again persuaded her not to disobey the prophet.

In court, she admitted being hurt by her mother's failure to protect her. Hammon still struggles with that.

Her mother put a railway tie separating the backyard from a field. It marked a safe zone for the girls. Beyond that there was no protection from molestation.

Girls caught beyond the railway tie were whipped with a horse bridle on their bare legs.

Girls who were molested and told were then forced to watch as the boys were beaten, reinforcing for Hammon that no matter what happened, it was always the girls' fault.

Yet somehow both Hammon and the state's witness found strength to be defiant.

By the winter of 2003, the young bride had given up trying to being a good wife. She had a separate bedroom in the trailer she shared with her husband, but often she slept in her truck.

She testified that her husband raped her one night that winter, up in the dark red hills above the desert town.

"I told him, you know, I'll never be the same. That's when I decided I was done."

But still she had nowhere to go. She began spending more time with people who had left the FLDS or been excommunicated. One man was kind to her. They fell in love. They sneaked away for a weekend. Her husband found the photos and condoms in her drawer. By then she was pregnant with her lover's child.

That spring, her husband asked the leaders to dissolve the marriage. Jeffs agreed and that same night, the young woman left Hildale for the last time with the other man who is now her husband.

During all of this, she never called police. In August 2005 she called a lawyer wanting to know about her rights. A year ago, she filed a civil suit against Jeffs.

Why did it take so long to complain? Jeffs's attorney, Tara Issacson, wanted to know. Why did she call a lawyer and not police? The suggestion was that she is more concerned about getting money than getting justice?

But Hammon is amazed the woman came forward so soon.

By the time Hammon spoke out, she was 30, well-travelled, well-spoken and established in her career. Her father was dead. Still she was terrified and still she hasn't gone to police to report any of the abuse.

She channels her energy and anger into volunteering with the HOPE Organization, which helps others who have left the FLDS and other polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon groups.

Based on her experience in Hildale and with HOPE, Hammon says the state's witness "represents at least a couple of thousand other women out there going through this even today."

(In addition to the women, HOPE estimates there could be as many as 1,000 boys living in the St. George area, who have been kicked out or encouraged to leave so that older men can have multiple wives.)

Hammon has been called a liar by people who still revere her father as one of God's prophets.

But she was in court this week because she says she knows the truth. She believes her father was a pedophile.

And she believes he was wrong to preach that all children lie, that no child can ever tell the truth.

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