East Valley Tribune

January 15, 2004

Seeking shelter in a storm

Amid flurry of controversy, girls flee polygamous enclave

Flora Jessop was 16 when she fled a forced marriage to her cousin in the community of Colorado City in northern Arizona nearly 18 years ago. On Sunday, she helped two other 16-year-old girls escape life under the area’s polygamous stronghold and the forced marriages she said were sure to come.

"I knew at 13 that I didn’t want to live like that," said Fawn Louise Broadbent, 16, who is staying at a safe house in Phoenix. "I want to be able to choose who I’m going to marry, and I want to go to a real school, not a church school. And I want to be a clothing designer, not somebody’s 15th wife."

"How can you be happy if you don’t have a choice?" asked her friend Fawn Holm, 16.

The girls spoke to the Tribune this week even as state officials were scrambling to address their situation. At least one state senator called on state officials to intervene to protect the girls, who fled just as a controversy flared up in the polygamist community this week.

There are an estimated 55,000 polygamists living in Arizona and Utah, the majority of them in the area known as the Arizona Strip, to the north of the Grand Canyon and along the border with Utah.

Broadbent’s and Holm’s families belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Colorado City, which is not aligned with the mainstream Mormon Church. The polygamists were excommunicated from the Mormons more than 100 years ago. Modern Mormons do not condone polygamy.

Monday morning Dan Barlow, the mayor of Colorado City, was forced to resign because of a revelation by the community’s prophet, Warren Jeffs. Over the weekend, Jeffs ordered Barlow and approximately 20 other polygamists from their homes, wives and children.

A woman who answered the phone at Barlow’s home said, "I don’t want to talk to you,’’ when contacted by the Tribune.

According to Jessop, who was getting Holm and Broadbent out of the community when the event occurred, the women and children from those homes will be parceled out to men who remain in good standing with Jeffs.

Efforts to reach Jeffs for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Holm’s father is one of the men believed to have been ousted by Jeffs.

"If she’s forced to go back there, she’ll be given to a new ‘daddy,’ " Jessop said. "Think what that means to a child. You are raised your entire life calling one man your father, then overnight, you are told to forget him, that he is dead to you, that you have a new father. And in these polygamy compounds, the new ‘daddy’ tends to turn into ‘husband.’ That’s the fate I’m trying to avoid for Fawn."

Jessop’s efforts to help the girls, aided by a group of expolygamist wives who call themselves Tapestry Against Polygamy, comes at considerable risk. She could face charges of kidnapping, or at least custodial interference.

Late last year, Jessop joined other runaway wives in a class action lawsuit seeking $110 million in damages from the polygamy commune.

She said Utah officials are aware of her latest action with the girls.

"Before I picked these girls up, I called the Utah attorney general and told him what I was going to do, and he said, ‘If you need anything, just let me know.’ But when I called the Arizona attorney general and told him the same thing, I was told that DPS would pick up the girls and put them a detention center. I’m not about to let that happen. These girls have been terrorized enough," she said.

Utah Attorney General Paul Murphy confirmed the conversation with Jessop but added that he called her on Wednesday and urged her to cooperate with the Arizona attorney general.

"Flora is very tied into that community and can provide us with information," Murphy said. "We have several investigations under way concerning crimes in those communities. But I also have to say that the Arizona attorney general seems to have taken up the fight. (Attorney General) Terry Goddard is very concerned about these young women. The problem is that to prosecute, you need evidence, and evidence has proven hard to come by."

Arizona Sen. Linda Binder, R-Lake Havasu City, an antipolygamy activist, says that she spoke to Goddard on Wednesday morning, and that she believes the girls should be turned over to Child Protective Services.

"Terry told me that Arizona needs to run a complete forensic investigation, because one of the brothers is driving down from Utah and he wants to take them back up there," Binder said. "Terry’s afraid he’ll lose his witnesses. I’m so concerned for these girls that I even thought about throwing them in my car and taking them back to Lake Havasu with me, but I realize we have to do this the attorney general’s way. The girls need a ring of safety around them because we’re afraid that the prophet will start threatening blood atonement against the girls and any others who try to run way.

"This is such a horrible mess. It’s like we have the Taliban in our own back yard."

Goddard’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

Jeffs’ attempt at solidifying his power base in Colorado City may backfire, says Mohave County Supervisor Buster D. Johnson of Lake Havasu City.

"I hear a lot of the guys up there are now having ‘visions’ that tell them they’re the new prophet," Johnson said"They’re all grabbing for power now. The sad thing is, it’s the girls that get caught in the middle. But it could be that this will be the final storm in a very stormy community."

Johnson said that abused girls have been hesitant to come forth because they do not trust law enforcement officials to treat them fairly.

"Most of the time the girls are just turned back over to the very people who abused them," he said. "I’m hoping that with all the media attention that’s going on, at least about the community’s financial affairs, that something might happen, and that the girls will see that the polygamy leaders like Jeffs are not invulnerable."

Broadbent and Holm are trying to ignore the legal storm about to break over their heads. "I’m happy for the first time in my life," Holm said.

"I’m out, and I feel free," Broadbent added.