HILDALE, Utah — Carolyn Jessop escaped in the dead of night, her eight frightened children in tow.
The town she fled had been her home for her entire 35 years. It was the nation’s largest polygamous community, run by an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which she described as a “dangerous and destructive cult” that oppressed its women and children.
“Women in the polygamist culture are looked at as property, as a piece of meat,” said Jessop, formerly one of seven wives of a motel owner, whom she was forced to marry when she was 18 and he was 50. “The women are basically baby-producers.”
But in a twist that might have seemed inconceivable when she ran away two years ago, Jessop and another escapee, Margaret Cooke, stand poised to join the board of a sect trust that owns almost all the property in Hildale and in Colorado City, Ariz. The board, like everything else, always has been run exclusively by men.
That women might share power with men in a place known for female submission — the makeup of the board will be completed in a court hearing July 21 — is almost revolutionary in the communities, home to as many as 8,000 sect members.
Since Jessop fled, much has changed for the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had existed largely without interference from authorities.
The group’s self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, is a fugitive, indicted this month on sexual-abuse charges that he forced a 16-year-old girl to marry a 28-year-old married man. Opponents of Jeffs say he ordered hundreds of such unions, often between girls barely in their teens and men decades older.
He also is being sued by one of his nephews, Brent Jeffs, 22, who alleges that he was repeatedly raped when he was a boy in the 1980s by his uncle and two other males. The three told Brent Jeffs that sodomy was “God’s work,” according to the lawsuit, and warned that he would suffer the “pain of eternal damnation” if he told anyone.
A month ago, Arizona authorities raided the offices of the Colorado City Unified School District, a one-school operation controlled by Warren Jeffs, as part of a criminal investigation into the misappropriation of millions of dollars of public money.
Earlier this month, a probate judge in Salt Lake City, in lawsuits about property rights, stripped Jeffs and several followers of power over the church trust, created in 1942.
The judge is expected to replace the existing board with Jessop and Cooke and several banished male church members.
The women are supremely aware of the irony, though they have no illusions about immediately changing years of entrenched beliefs. But both vowed to end the practice of tossing people out of their homes, which was done when residents fell out of favor and Jeffs “reassigned” wives to new husbands.
“The board needed someone who loved the community and loved the people enough to protect them,” said Cooke, who left in 1994, when she was 35, and settled in Salt Lake City. Cooke had eight children with her husband, a construction worker whom she was ordered to marry when she was 16 and he was 22. She barely knew him, and she divorced him in 1995.
At first, Cooke had no interest in joining the trust’s board, she said, but then realized it might help the women who remain faithful to the sect’s doctrines on polygamous marriages. The community evolved here after the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City officially renounced polygamy in 1890.
Cooke said most people here see the board changes as “a threat to Warren, who in their opinion is the prophet, and if you do anything to him, you’re fighting God.”
Warren Jeffs, 48, a proponent of the credo that a man must have at least three wives to enter the “celestial kingdom,” began to assume control in 1995, after his father, Rulon Jeffs, the previous prophet, had a stroke. Former members said Warren Jeffs had as many as 70 wives of all ages, and almost all lived in a walled compound in Hildale, which had surveillance cameras patrolled by armed guards.
Jeffs’ whereabouts are unknown, although many speculate that he is in Canada.
Authorities in Utah and Arizona conceded that the legal actions have been a long time coming.
“In the past, because of their remote location and their unusual beliefs, they have been left alone,” said Terry Goddard, the Arizona attorney general. But in recent months, he said, largely as a result of news media attention, “there’s been a level of scrutiny that didn’t exist before.”
That is small consolation to Pennie Petersen, 35, who ran away from Hildale at 14.
“This has been happening for 100 years,” said Petersen, now a homemaker in Phoenix with five children. “My Aunt Jeannine was forced into a marriage when she was 9 years old,” she said. “They wanted to marry me off to a guy who was 48 — I was going to be his fifth bride.”
The few women who have left and are speaking out might serve as an example to those who remain, Petersen said.
“There’s a lot of women saying: ‘See? If she can do it, I can,’ ” she said. “What’s awesome is that by getting these couple of cases, it’s just snowballed. Before, no one would dare fight. These women need to know that you are not going to burn in hell if you leave.”