Sisters Raised In FLDS Church Question Justice Department Trial
PHOENIX — Ruby Jessop didn’t want her six children to reach their teenage years as she had, inside the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous sect.
Which is why a little more than three years ago, when Ruby was 26, she left the church and her remote, rural hometown of Colorado City, Ariz. Fewer than 8,000 people live in Colorado City and neighboring Hildale on the other side of the Utah border. The majority of the residents are FLDS church members who follow strict church teachings, including bans on most forms of entertainment.
Jessop brought her kids to Phoenix where her older sister, Flora Jessop, lives. When they arrived, Ruby Jessop sat them down and explained why they would not be going back.
“I told them, you know, I was forced to marry your dad, I didn’t want you to go through the same thing I went through,” Jessop said. “I didn’t want you to be forced to marry somebody you didn’t love. And I want you to have a choice.”
Jessop said when she was 14, her stepfather, who was the church bishop, forced her to marry her adult stepbrother.
“Something that no 14-year-old girl should ever go through,” Jessop said. “I was raped, multiple times.”
Jessop said the local police, the Colorado City-Hildale Marshal’s Office, did nothing to stop underage marriages like hers. She said the marshals were loyal to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who has been accused of arranging underage marriages.
Jeffs was ultimately convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting girls he took as brides, and is serving a life sentence at a Texas prison.
“Most of the marshal’s office people, they are considered security for the church,” Jessop said. “Anything that goes on in the church they are going to hide it.”
That very allegation — that the town marshals are controlled by the FLDS church — will be examined in a federal civil rights trial that begins Wednesday in Phoenix.
Though the suit does not name the FLDS church as a defendant and does not explicitly take on the issue of church-sanctioned underage marriages, the United States Justice Department is accusing the marshals of allowing the underage marriages to go on.
It is one of the ways the Justice Department intends to paint a picture of Hildale and Colorado City as corrupt town governments that acted as arms of the FLDS church, and discriminated against those who had been expelled from the church or had left the faith.
Attorneys for the towns are expected to argue the problems with the marshals were resolved years ago, and the towns do not discriminate against residents on the basis of religion.
If the jury sides with the federal government, it could result in court-ordered reforms in the towns, and damages for victims of discrimination.
But Ruby Jessop can’t help wondering why the federal government didn’t intervene sooner. Her attitude toward the trial is a mix of emotions.
“It is a little bit too late,” Jessop said. “And I am excited to see what’s going to happen. Maybe something will happen. Maybe something won’t.”
Ruby’s sister Flora Jessop has been trying for years to draw attention to the problems in the FLDS church, which she refers to as a cult. She herself left nearly 30 years ago after she was married at age 16.
Flora Jessop has been frustrated by the lack of support services for those who take the difficult step of leaving the church for a completely foreign lifestyle they are unprepared for.
She also wonders about the Justice Department’s goals with this litigation.
“Is there going to be a fund set up to help the victims, and if so, who gets to decide who is a victim?” Jessop asked.
Some of the Justice Department’s key witnesses were at one point powerful men in town who have since turned on the church. They are expected to help the federal government’s case by testifying about FLDS coordination with town leadership.
But the Jessop sisters say they remember when some witnesses were complicit in the abusive mandates of Warren Jeffs. One key witness was a former bodyguard for Jeffs.
“He is the one who is going to benefit from the proceeds of this trial?” Flora Jessop said. “Where is the justice in this? It is infuriating to me.”
To both women, there won’t be true justice in the towns until more of the individuals responsible for child abuse there are behind bars.
“Every woman who didn’t stand up for her kid should be put in prison. Every father that stood up and told their family it is OK to sexualize young women should be put in prison,” Ruby Jessop said. “Including my mother, my very own mother.”
Flora Jessop believes the best remedy would be more resources to help those who want to leave the church and start a new life. She believes what is needed is a centralized apartment complex in Phoenix or other cities where women and children can come to transition.
“Bring the services to these women and children,” Flora Jessop said. “Do you know what it is like to transport eight children to appointments? Get them tutoring services. Bring them up to date and then put them in school.”
Ruby Jessop said her transition to working and caring for her kids in Phoenix hasn’t been easy, but she said she made the right choice to leave. She has a job at a restaurant and last year was able to get her own place for her kids, who are now between the ages of five and 13.
“I got my beautiful children away from all the abuse,” Jessop said. “All the hurtful things that have been happening up there.”
Now the big question she has: What will change?
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