Laura Chapman now 39 remembers the night of her biggest rescue as if it were yesterday: Two young girls who were weeks away from polygamist marriages wanted to escape. “I told them to pack their birth certificates and social-security cards, if they had them,” she recalls, “plus three changes of clothes, pictures of their families, and one ‘comfort item’- a favorite stuffed animal, something that would make them feel loved.” Laura waited for the girls late that night, under a street lamp near their homes outside Salt Lake City. “I was really nervous, but excited for them,” says Laura, “and scared for all of us.” Then she spotted one of the girls running down the street. She was lugging a suitcase, pillow, and a teddy bear and sporting a huge grin.

“People are so willing to criticize how [poorly] women are treated in Afghanistan, but it’s all happening right here in the American West,” Laura says today from her home in Colorado. “Girls have to cover up their bodies. They are denied education. And they are chastised severely if they stray from the path,” she says. “But it’s easier for people to think that stuff only happens overseas.”

Laura knows all this because she grew up in the Salt Lake City branch of the fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [FLDS], an unrecognized splinter group of the Mormon Church. As a child, she didn’t bring playmates home from school, because she feared they would discover that her father had three wives. As a teenager in an era in which bell-button jeans and Farrah Fawcett hairstyles were the norm, Laura was ridiculed for her dowdy dresses and tightly braided hair.

And, at 18, she entered into an arranged marriage with a man she barely knew. “I was always told you had to love a person to sleep with him,” Laura says. “So, on our wedding night, I told George I loved him. And yet, he was a total stranger.” Laura tried o make the marriage work, and by the time she was 28, she and George had five children.

Eventually, George started pressuring Laura to let him take a second wife. But she refused, having witnessed tortured dynamics between her father and his wives. “Each woman was searching for a way to mean something to him that the others didn’t,” Laura says. “It created such a lopsided power structure in the family-Dad had all the power.” That wasn’t the kind of marriage Laura wanted. Leaving George and the FLDS sect, she and her children checked into a shelter. She found subsidized housing, got a job, earned her a high school diploma, and put herself through college.

Her own life in order, Laura turned her attention to other young women trapped in loveless multi spouse relationships. She became frustrated that existing organizations, like Tapestry Against Polygamy, didn’t help young women actually escaped. So, in March 1999, she set up her own hotline in Salt Lake City. Word of mouth got the phone ringing.

Her first client was a battered woman who wanted to leave a polygamous marriage. With in weeks, she got her second and third clients: Sarah Cooke and Kathy Beagley, the two teens who wanted to leave the FLDS. Advised by an attorney, she had the girls file statements that they’d made the decision to leave the sect on their own; that way Laura couldn’t be accused of kidnapping. A few weeks later, she was waiting under the lamppost, watching the girls run toward her. “It was just so personal for me to do this for them,” says Laura says, her eyes filling with tears. “I wish I’d had someone to tell me what life was like outside the group, and that I could make good choices for myself.

BATTLING THE SYSTEM

Laura’s bold stance against polygamy caught the attention of sect leaders, and soon, she and her family were being harassed: She received threatening phone calls; her car was tampered with. As a result, she moved to Colorado. But she still has ties to Salt Lake City, providing recital and legal information to anyone helping young women escape. She also writes letters to politicians in Utah and Washington, DC, urging them to recognize the dangers of polygamy and prosecute the men who continue to break the laws forbidding it. She speaks about her experiences with the FLDS and works with the New School in New York City to connect with women battling polygamy in cultures around the world.

Laura also keeps in touch with four of the young women she’s rescued, offering moral support as they continue to adjust to life in the outside world. Her dream is to create a permanent safe house for girls who flee, to provide a stable and loving transition to normalcy. “With the restricted lives they have led, these girls need help,” Laura says. “It means so much to them, just to know that the support is there.”



This February, when the net work-news teams hit Salt Lake City for the Olympics, Flora Jessop will be waiting. Disgusted by Utah state officials’ lackluster enforcement and of ant -polygamy laws, she and other “apostates”-the sect’s term for those who flee the FDLS will meet with the media to tell their stories.

Nineteen years ago, at age 13, Flora’s father tried to marry her hometown of Hildale, UT. She told her father and her family that if she was forced to marry him--a much older man with five wives, as well as a mean reputation--she would kill him, and then herself, on their wedding. That kind of defiant behavior was typical for Flora- and was what led to her father’s choice. After her father announced his intentions, the sheriff told flora after church services one Sunday that he couldn’t wait to “tame” her.

Rather than await that fate, Flora broke away from her family on a trip to nearby St. George and took drastic measure: She went to a local police station and filed sexual-assault charges against her father, whom Flora says had been abusing her since puberty. But her brave act went un-rewarded: a local court heard the case, and custody of Flora was awarded to Fred Jossop, her paternal uncle and a top church official. He walled off the end of the hallway in his house, locking Flora up there, letting her out only when the other children were at school.

After three long years, she broke away again-and was caught and forced to marry her first cousin. After one week of marriage, she ran again. This time, she didn’t stop: Any-where she tried to settle down, men from the sect would find her, calling to make threats, driving by her home. But the perpetual chase wasn’t the hardest part of escaping; dealing with the modern world- a world from which she had been totally sheltered-was overwhelming. She had never seen a movie, never watched TV, never listened to the radio. “I was naïve to the point of being socially retarded,” she says. “For the first couple years, I was in a void. You feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole, and no matter what you do, you can’t get you feet on solid ground.”

Those feelings are what kept Flora thinking about others like her. That and her sister, Ruby, who was born on the day she finally escaped. Flora pulls out one of the few family photos she took with her to point out Ruby. They’ve met a few times, yet Flora feels an intense responsibility for her. Last May, Flora got word that then- 14-year-old Ruby had escaped a three week marriage to her stepbrother and sought refuge with an older brother. When Flora called Ruby related a familiar story. “She was called into my uncle’s office and given a dress,” Flora says. “And the said, ‘This is your wedding dress.”’ Despite her desperate pleas, Ruby was married that day.

As soon as they hung up, Flora began plotting Ruby’s final escape –but she didn’t move fast enough. A few days later, Ruby was picked up as she left the house by a family friend who returned her to her parents. Flora reported the underage marriage, but when child-welfare authorities investigated, Ruby denied ever having wed. The she vanished. Flora called everyone she still knew in the sect, but no one admitted knowing Ruby’s whereabouts. In desperation she called her father: “Ruby’s on vacation,” he claimed.

Flora worries that her sister’s life has been threatened. “If she testified in court,” Flora says, “the Prophet [sect leader] who performed the marriage would face felony prison time.” So Flora created a blizzard of publicity and a website devoted to her sister. By keeping Ruby in the spotlight, Flora hopes to bring her into the open and to freedom.

Flora is also helping other girls escape arranged marriages. “They are all Ruby, s far as I’m concerned,” she says. Now married and living in Phoenix, Flora has created a kind of “underground railroad” to spirit teenage girls out of the sects. If a girl is deemed a low-risk case (for example, if she hasn’t yet been married), Flora arranges a foster home through a social-services agency. Otherwise, Flora is prepared to take high-risk girls “deep underground” to keep them from being found by family members and returned to the lives they wanted so desperately to leave. Rescuing underage girls is risky; being charged with kidnapping is always possible. But Flora persists. She’s in constant contact with approximately 50 people, who serve as her eyes and ears in the FLDS enclaves of Hildale and Colorado City, AZ. Some live outside the renegade sects; others belong to them, secretly passing along information. “We keep our ears to the ground for the faintest cry for help,” she says.


Sarah Cooke is a typical college freshman. She has gold highlights in her long brown hair and peppers her sentences with slang words, like “dude.” Unless she told you, it would be impossible to guess that she spent most of her childhood sheltered within the FDLS enclave in Colorado City.

She is also Laura Chapman’s biggest success story. Four years ago, when Sarah was 15, her father began to plan her marriage. For Sarah- who had been forced to raise her seven younger siblings for her chronically-ill mother-it was the last straw.

Sarah loved school, but she was allowed to attend only on one condition: feed, dress, and care for her siblings first. “I told my relatives, ‘I’m going to high school,”’ Sarah recalls. “They burst out laughing. My aunt said, ‘You’re smart, but you won’t have the opportunity.”’

Sarah’s family had moved to Salt Lake City when she was 13, and she was enrolled in an FLDS-run finishing school. There she befriended Kathy Beagly, and the pair began sneaking out at night to visit an aunt of Kathy’s who’d left the sect. Defying the sect’s rules forbidding and kind of modern entertainment, the girls snuggled into the woman’s couch watching movie after movie. Months before Sarah’s 16th birthday, her father told her he’d had a vision about her future husband. He revealed that the man had two wives already, which meant that he wasn’t young. “I went into denial,” say Sarah. “I thought, This is not happening to me.” The day Sarah’s mother took her shopping to choose fabric for her wedding dress, Sarah and Kathy decided to run away. Kathy’s aunt gave them Laura Chapman’s phone number; Sarah was relieved when Laura promised to help. “I thought, Oh, thank God!”

Building A New Life
Both girls were placed with foster families, but Kathy struggled in her new surroundings and soon returned home. Sarah however, thrived. “I did well in high school,” she says proudly. “I almost got into the top ten percent of my class.” Within months, Sarah cut her hair, started wearing pants, pierced her ears, and bought her first magazine.

There is only one thing Sarah missed. “The hardest part was leaving my family. But they’ve told me not to call them,” she says simply. She visits her foster family or Laura when on break from Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

Sarah has been transformed-from victim to out spoken survivor. She’s given interviews to local papers and TV-news program, she’s met with the Utah state legislature, and she recently lectured her theology class about the FDLS, sharing the story of her life. Afterwards, she says, her classmates expressed their awe at all she’s been through.

While continuing her work against polygamy, Sarah also hopes to become a psychologist. Even so, her independence occasionally unnerves her. “It’s scary--there-are almost no rules,” she says. “But it’s a fascinating world.”

Article by: Marie Claire Magazine
Author by: Helen Thorpe


why polygamy continues to thrive in the U.S. Although the U.S. outlawed polygamy more than a century ago, 30,000 to 50,000 people belong to the three breakaway sects of the Mormon Church that still practice plural marriages in towns on the Arizona-Utah border and in Salt Lake City. Though these groups believe they are adhering to Mormon tradition, the Mormon Church does not recognize them and condemns their practice.

Despite the large number of polygamists in Utah, state officials have a history of looking the other way. “It’s very hard to prosecute- you need witness, you need cooperation,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has said, “Because of the closed nature of the society and the threats to young brides have been made: In May of last year, Tom Green- who has five wives and 31 children became the first polygamist convicted in the U.S. in almost 50 years. Green was sentenced to five years in prison. To express outrage that polygamy is tolerated in this country, write to your state’s elected officials. For a list of congressmen in your area, log on to www.house.gov.

Marriages of girls as young as 13 have been reported within these sects. Last year, Utah made it a felony to condone illegal marriages of girls younger than 16. That’s a start, but activists say more must be done. Girls within the sects are routinely denied education for example, not one female pupil has graduated from the Colorado City public high school since 1993. To read about missing child bride Ruby Jessop, and to add your name to a petition to protest of treatment of children within these sects, log on to www.helpthechildbrides.com

High levels of poverty, incest, child abuse, and wife battering are some of the social problems associated with polygamy. Organizations such as the Child Protection Project and the American Family Foundation fight to protect children being abused within the sects. To get news updates and find out how you can donate money, log on to www.childpro.org or www.csj.org

Tapestry Against Polygamy strives to educate the public about the practice’s dangers. Founded by former plural wives, the group works with various Utah state agencies to help the women who leave the communities obtain social-security cards cards and birth certificates, so they can rebuild their lives. To volunteer your time or money, log onto www.polygamy.org or call (801) 259-52000

To fulfill her goal of setting up a safe house for girls who flee polygamy sects, Laura Chapman needs people who can lobby politicians, write grant proposals, and raise funds. To offer your help, e-mail her at mslchap@aol.com

-Helen Thorpe and Heather Bobrow