SOUTH JORDAN – Johnny Jessop is still holding on to hope.
There are two days to go before Christmas, five until his 18th birthday. That is time enough for a change of heart. Time enough for a call from Elsie, his 62-year-old mother, whom he has not heard from in 18 months.
The one man he believes can make it happen: polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs.
Johnny, a so-called Lost Boy ordered out of Hildale five years ago, has written Jeffs several letters pleading for help.
“I don’t know what I did that was so bad as a 13-year-old to be forever cut off from my family,” Johnny wrote in the first letter, sent a day after Thanksgiving. “I know that you alone have the ability to allow her to see me again. . . . All I want is to see her and be her son.”
There has been no response from Jeffs, who is incarcerated at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane. He is to stand trial in April on charges of being an accomplice to rape for conducting a marriage despite protests from the 14-year-old bride.
Johnny’s situation is not unlike that of the 80-plus teens, mostly boys, who gathered Friday night for a Christmas party sponsored by the Diversity Foundation. Most are cut off from parents and siblings in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
They were kicked out of or fled the community after engaging in bad behavior or deciding they wanted a different life; some activists allege the boys are driven off to reduce competition for wives.
They have “no safety net of a family who will always be there for you,” said Shannon Price, the foundation’s director. “In normal society, a parent is going to do what they can to help that child get through that rebellious stage.
“In this community, they kick them out and say, ‘You can’t come back.’ They don’t allow them visitation or communication at all with their natural parents.”
Jeffs has even given that counsel from the pulpit. In a sermon delivered July 16, 2000, in Colorado City, Jeffs told the faithful that the “great challenge among this people is the apostates are our relatives.
“If a mother has apostate children, her emotions won’t let her give them up and she invites them into the home, thus desecrating that dedicated home. We want to see them and socialize with them, and every time we do, we weaken our faith and our ability to stand with the prophet.”
But Johnny hangs on to one unshakable belief.
“I know she still loves me and wants to be my mother,” Johnny wrote to Jeffs.
Johnny is the youngest of 14 children; he didn’t spend much time with his father, who preferred his other family.
When he was 10, Johnny’s mother was reassigned to then-FLDS Bishop Fred Jessop, regarded as the “catch basin for broken families.” Fred Jessop had 39 wives by Johnny’s count and, unable to have children of his own, was the stepfather or adoptive father of more than 200 children.
Johnny said he was welcomed into the large fold at first but admits he quickly got pegged as a troublemaker.
“I was considered the little sh–,” he said. “I wasn’t hop-to obedient or whatever you call it.”
Among the hordes of children at Fred Jessop’s home, Johnny hooked up with two brothers who had moved to Hildale from Salt Lake City and were the “worst rebels.”
“I became like them,” Johnny said. “I was an innocent thing until I moved to Uncle Fred’s.”
Johnny took up smoking cigarettes at age 11 and started drinking at 12, sneaking off to a party spot northwest of town dubbed “Edge of the World.”
At home, the pressure built until, sick of being told he was evil, Johnny ran off to Hurricane and spent three days at a friend’s home partying.
An older brother tracked him down and told Johnny that Jeffs wanted him out of the community. He was told to come get his belongings or they would be thrown out on the street.
Johnny remembers walking into his mother’s room to say goodbye. She was crying, he said, and uttered a single word: “Why?”
With a teenager’s bravado, Johnny celebrated his new freedom.
“I was happy I was out,” said Johnny, who spent the next eight months or so living with his friend in Hurricane. He picked up construction jobs using skills he’d learned participating in communal work projects. But he also “went out and partied, drank and got in trouble.”
Johnny landed before a St. George juvenile judge, who ordered him to return to Hildale. He moved in with a brother, but it didn’t last long.
“I was getting kicked around all over the place by them, by the judge,” he said.
His next stop, at age 15, was a juvenile detention center. Johnny spent a month there after his older brother urged a juvenile judge to give the teen time to reflect on his life.
Then he was back on his own.
Johnny said his mother would stop by once a week or so to go to lunch, unwilling to give up on him despite his wayward behavior.
“We were really close,” he said. “I cared about her a lot.”
Just before he turned 16, Johnny moved to the Salt Lake Valley and became a ward of Dan Fischer, a dentist and the successful entrepreneur behind Ultradent. Fischer, a former FLDS member and founder of the Diversity Foundation, has made helping Johnny and the other teens a personal campaign.
Johnny attended high school for a while but dropped out at the end of 11th grade. He now works for an excavation company, earning $10 an hour.
For a time, Johnny’s mother called him once a week. But the calls dwindled. In her last call, Johnny said, his mother told him she was on the move and would be unable to contact him again due to the pressure on the community.
That was 18 months ago – a loss that set in hard at Thanksgiving, which Johnny said was his mother’s “big thing.”
Fischer suggested the letters, Johnny said, and “it sounded like a really good idea,” worth a shot, anyway, to see if Jeffs would “open it up for me and my mom to see each other again.”
“I want her to know that I’m doing good, that I’m still alive and kicking,” he said. “The last time she saw me, I was small.”
Breaking away from the FLDS
- Johnny Jessop is one of 400 or so teens who have fled or been kicked out of a polygamous sect at the Utah-Arizona state line since 2002.
- Mostly male, the teens are known as the “Lost Boys” – a moniker many of them resent.
- Some say they left because they wanted more or different opportunities than those offered within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Many say they were driven out for breaking rules, such as dressing inappropriately or smoking and using drugs. Anti-polygamy activists maintain boys are driven off to reduce competition for wives.
- Most scatter around Washington County, banding together with other teens or older siblings. A number have turned to Dan Fischer, an ex-FLDS member and founder of Ultradent and the Diversity Foundation, for jobs, guidance and other help.