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Video: Ex-polygamist wife reveals life

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updated 4/8/2008 11:25:45 AM ET 2008-04-08T15:25:45

A polygamous community in Texas that follows the teaching of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practices pedophilia, torture and child abuse under the guise of a religion, according to a woman who escaped the sect with her eight children five years ago.

“I think it’s a form of pedophilia hiding behind a religion as a protection,” Carolyn Jessop told TODAY’s Matt Lauer from Salt Lake City on Tuesday. “There’s just a desire to control and manipulate and torture people, and religion is just used as the cover.”

The sect Jessop escaped is the same one in Eldorado, Texas, that was raided on Monday by state police after a 16-year-old girl called authorities to report that she was being abused. The girl reported that other girls as young as 14 were being forced into plural marriages with much older men.

Police removed 401 children and 133 women from the compound on warrants issued by a judge, who deemed them to be under imminent danger of physical abuse.

Jessop said it took enormous courage for the girl to call police, who still aren’t sure if she is among those removed from the compound.

“It would take courage that’s even beyond what I could comprehend,” she told Lauer. “She could not run the risk of being caught. She would have just to have gotten to the point where she would rather be dead than to continue living the way she was living. It would have had to have been that extreme for her, because those are literally some of the risks she was taking.”

When Jessop was a member of the sect, it was centered in Colorado City, Ariz., on the Utah border. The 1,700-acre Texas compound was built after she left. The sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last September after being found guilty of two counts of first-degree accomplice rape for sanctioning the forced marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.

The 40-year-old Jessop was 18 when she was forced to marry Merril Jessop, who is said to have taken over leadership of the sect when Jeffs went to prison. Merril Jessop was 50 at the time of the marriage and had three other wives. She said from what she has heard and read, the sect has become even more restrictive since moving to Texas.

She has written a book about her experience entitled “Escape,” and in it, she talks about being totally cut off from the world and not being allowed to watch television or read newspapers or magazines.

“Everything you did was monitored and controlled and everybody reported on everyone else,” she said. “It was a police state. You were not allowed to make decisions in your life. I had no power over my life or the lives of my children. It was a terrible way to live.”

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The alleged control began in infancy.

“The method he would use with infants was a form of water torture,” Jessop said of her former husband. “He would spank the baby until it was screaming out of control, and then he would hold the baby faceup under a tap of running water so it couldn’t breathe. He would do this repeatedly. Sometimes, it would go on for an hour, until the baby was so exhausted it couldn’t cry anymore. This method he called ‘breaking them.’”

To a child, the abuse becomes normal, she said, and resistance becomes unthinkable to most. “With this level of mind control, it’s something you’re born into and it’s generational. The babies born into this, they don’t stand a chance from the beginning,” she said.

What prompted her to leave was what she saw as a threat to her daughter.

“It was getting worse every year,” she said of the level of control and abuse. “That’s one of the things for me where I felt so urgent to get out was that my daughter was turning 14, and Warren was resetting the marrying age at that point to 14. This was in 2003.”

She said her husband controlled his wives through their children. “The way he controlled me was by being violent to my children,” she told Lauer. “If I did something that he didn’t like, my children paid, and they paid a big price. He would hurt them. If he would have been hurting me, I probably would not have conformed. But when you go after a woman’s child, that’s one thing that will put a woman on her knees quickly.”

The fundamentalist group claims to hold to the original teachings of Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon religion in rural upstate New York in 1830. It is not recognized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which renounced plural marriage in 1904 under pressure from the federal government.

There are a number of fundamentalist branches with compounds in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Mexico and Texas, according to Jon Krakauer’s book, “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.”

Rulon Jeffs founded the sect that Jessop belonged to and built his original compound in Colorado City, Ariz., on the Utah border. On his death, his son, Warren Jeffs, assumed primacy, along with the title of “President and Prophet and Revelator” and the absolute authority that came with the position.

Jeffs was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list when he was captured in August 2006 while driving through Nevada in a Cadillac Escalade. With him were one of his wives and his brother. Police said Jeffs had four computers, 16 cell phones, various disguises and $55,000 in cash.


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