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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.

August 01, 2004|Matthew Heller | Matthew Heller last wrote for the magazine about paroled swindler Barry Minkow's religious conversion.

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.

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