The border-hopping didn't save the church from the infamous Short Creek raid of 1953. Arizona authorities, acting on the orders of Gov. Howard Pyle, arrested 122 polygamists and declared 263 children to be wards of the state. But the raid backfired after the public shuddered at newspaper photographs of wailing toddlers being separated from their mothers. The arrested church members were soon back home, Pyle was voted out of office and law enforcement has been reluctant to intervene ever since.
by the time flora jessop was born in June 1969, the church had rooted itself in the dry soil as tenaciously as the Mormon tea bushes that dot the landscape. On the Utah side of Short Creek, Hildale had recently been incorporated, and the Arizona side had been renamed Colorado City. The then-prophet, Leroy "Uncle Roy" Johnson, reigned over an empire that now includes interests in construction, real estate, hotels and restaurants, and banking.
Jessop belonged to one of the community's largest and most prominent clans. Like other girls, she was taught from an early age to "keep sweet no matter what," which Warren Jeffs defines as keeping "the spirit of God through prayer and obedience." To Jessop, it meant subordinating yourself without protest to the patriarchy.
In her early teens, she was already struggling for independence. Once after a church service, a local cop who had five wives approached her. "He said, 'I can't wait till you're mine and I can tame you,' " she recalls. "The only thing I could think of saying was, 'Before I'd let you touch me, I'd kill you and myself.' "
At 16, Jessop made her getaway. Over the years, she has told conflicting stories about how this happened. What is clear is that she brought charges of sexual abuse against her father. A judge, apparently doubting her credibility, dismissed the case and the state placed her in the home of Fred Jessop, an uncle and a senior advisor to "Uncle Roy." In May 1986, she entered into an arranged marriage with a 19-year-old cousin, Philip Jessop. But within weeks she took off on her own for Kansas City, Mo.
Jessop was not prepared for life on the outside--"naive to the point of being socially retarded," as she puts it. She also was tormented that she might have damned herself to hell by fleeing the church. Her untidy life during that period speaks to the difficulty of adjusting to the outside world.
"I almost killed myself on cocaine," she remembers. Jessop had boyfriends and, after giving birth to a daughter from one relationship, moved to Phoenix, where she paid the bills by working as a topless dancer. She divorced Philip in 1996--they never reunited after she fled--and married a former U.S. Marine mechanic who brought his own daughter into their home.
Despite her apostasy, Jessop stayed in touch with some members of her huge family. In May 2001, she learned that her 14-year-old sister Ruby had run away to an older brother's home after Prophet Rulon Jeffs ordered her to marry a stepbrother. Before Jessop could arrange for Ruby to move to Phoenix, however, Ruby allegedly was abducted and taken to church elder Fred Jessop's home. When social workers interviewed Ruby a month later, she denied being married and was returned to Hildale.
Jessop hasn't been able to speak to Ruby since. She says the authorities did not adequately investigate whether Ruby had been abused. Mostly, she blames herself for being unable to save "the first person I gave my word to that I would save."
the experience persuaded Jessop to start Help the Child Brides in 2001, though she spends most of her time now working for the Child Protection Project, which provides financial support and other services to polygamy refugees. Funding for that group is tight--about $7,000 in donations so far this year. Jessop's bungalow in a blue-collar neighborhood of north Phoenix is crammed with documents, transcripts and pamphlets. "This is about every Ruby that's in there that wants to be free," she says.
It's also about sabotaging the well-oiled polygamy machine. The prophet, she argues, controls the community's men through his distribution of wives. The more girls she can get out, the fewer he has to satisfy the demand. Under Arizona and Utah law, girls under the age of 16 can be married with their parents' consent validated by a court order.
Jessop also knows that public scrutiny will help her cause. She got her first national publicity in March 2002, when Marie Claire magazine profiled her and two other refugees. The other women wore straight hair and modest sweaters for their photo shoots, but Jessop, with her permed hair and black leather jacket, could have passed for a biker chick. The article got the attention of Linda Walker, founder of the Child Protection Project, who was looking for a former church insider to serve as a spokesperson. Flora "didn't want this," Walker says. "I pushed her into it."