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THE ENCLAVE

Plenty of Parents but No Protectors

May 12, 2006|David Kelly and Gary Cohn | Times Staff Writers

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — In a place where outside authorities ignored sexual abuse and local police acted as church enforcers, a girl couldn't even count on her parents for help.

Sara Hammon said she made that discovery early.

Her father, the late J.M. Hammon, was a respected church figure in a community dominated by his religious sect. He was a contender for prophet, the highest post in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was also a child molester.

Hammon said her father began abusing her when she was about 5. This was the same father who would deliver stern Sunday sermons on purity, propriety and, above all, unquestioning obedience of wives to husbands, children to parents and everyone to the prophet.

"I knew it was wrong," she said. "... But they were all doing it."

One former FLDS member, a woman who asked not to be identified because she still lived nearby, said she knew of such child abuse but did nothing.

"One of my girls had an experience with my husband, and I got angry and was making a fuss, and one of the sister wives said he was confused and thought my daughter was his wife," she said. "I told myself: As long as God upholds him, I will."

The Hammon house was chaotic. There were 75 children and 19 mothers, or "sister wives." Whenever J.M. Hammon came home, the children lined up and he asked each one, "What is your name and who is your mother?"

Even as her father lay dying, Hammon said, he reached up her dress.

"I was happy when he died," she said matter-of-factly.

But the molestation didn't end.

When she was 7, Hammon said, a teenage brother tried to rape her in the family barn. Other brothers molested her as well, she said.

She tried organizing a family meeting to stop the abuse, but one of her mothers told her that "boys have a sex drive and can't be blamed," and the discussion ended there.

Hammon's biological mother tried to protect her girls from the boys. She placed a railroad tie in the backyard as a symbolic line to separate them. If anyone crossed it, Hammon recalled, they could be whipped with a horse bridle. It didn't work.

When she was 14, a local man asked if she was ready to marry. "Hell, I was 14. Of course I wasn't ready to be married," she said.

Soon after, the teenager ran away from home, eventually living in New York, Connecticut and France while working as a nanny.

Now 30, Hammon lives in Mesquite, Nev., where she is a real estate agent. She also works with the HOPE Organization, an outreach program to assist child brides of polygamous marriages.

She recently made a rare visit to her old neighborhood, leading the way up an alley to the house she fled 16 years ago. The big, rambling home hadn't changed much.

"The railroad tie is gone, but the barn is still there," she said.

Not far away, a mother and her children played beneath the tall cottonwoods. The girls wore the familiar long, modest dress typical of the FLDS. Their blond hair dangled in braids.

Hammon watched the idyllic scene and frowned.

"See those little girls? When they scream, no one will hear," she said. "And their mothers won't do anything to help."

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