The recent raid on Warren Jeffs‘ Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas, which resulted in the removal of more than 400 children from their homes, has thrust allegations of widespread child abuse at the polygamous sect into the national spotlight.
But one of the darkest secrets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints unfolds at a seedy roadside motel in the remote Nevada desert, where underage girls — some as young as 14 — are allegedly forced through hasty and secret wedding ceremonies.
Elissa Wall says she was one such 14-year-old who was taken to the motel and plunged into wedlock with no choice but to accept and obey the command of Jeffs.
Sam Brower, a private detective who has spent five years investigating Jeffs and his sect for a number of former members, says the weddings are done “covertly, real cloak-and-dagger like.”
Wall, now 21, told ABC News’ John Quinones that, “I was trapped. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. I did not want to go through with this marriage. I felt, honestly, what it was like to die.”
‘I Knew It Wasn’t Right’
Wall has documented her terrible ordeal in a new memoir called “Stolen Innocence.”
In it, she described in detail growing up in the sect that she says betrayed her faith. She says her wedding was the culmination of a traumatic experience that began when church leaders removed her, her mom and sisters from their family and reassigned them to another man — Fred Jessop.
Then, just months after her eighth-grade graduation, Jessop told her she’d be married in a week.
“Deep down inside, I knew it wasn’t right,” Wall said. “I didn’t want to be married at 14. [Sect members] honestly believe, and I did and so did my mother, that God sent down inspiration from heaven, like a strike of lightning, down to the prophet. This was God’s word. And we were to follow it, obediently and happily.”
During a meeting in the church hall, she learned her husband-to-be was her cousin Allen Steed, 19, whom she said she despised.
“I remember he walked over and I got this really sick feeling in my stomach,” Wall said. “Once I found out I was going to marry Allen something in me just rose up and I really resisted.”
She pleaded her case to Jeffs, but he turned her down and she was quickly fitted for a wedding dress.
‘I Was His Property’
The next morning Wall was taken from Colorado City, Ariz., to the then-church-owned Hotsprings Motel in Caliente, Nev., where the church secretly allegedly held its illegal weddings of underage girls.
Video obtained by “20/20” shows other female hotel guests going wild, wearing nothing but undergarments and drinking beer in a hot tub at the same motel — all taboos under Jeffs.
“It kind of reminds me of the Bates Motel from the movie ‘Psycho,'” investigator Brower said. “It’s kind of creepy. It’s such an out-of-the-way place and I think that’s what made the FLDS so comfortable with this place.”
In Room 15, Wall said, she at first refused to recite her vows, but finally relented when sternly ordered by Jeffs.
“After a lot of silence, I just said, ‘OK, I do.’ And to me I was broken,” she said. “I was ashamed, hurt and broken. I was sobbing at this point and [Jeffs] just looked right at me and told me, ‘You kiss Allen.'”
That kiss would be the beginning of the nightmare to come. In school, Wall had received no sex education. Dancing, dating and holding hands were prohibited by the Jeffs.
“He was the one that would teach in school that boys are poisonous snakes and that we were to keep away from them,” Wall said. “I had no idea what husbands and wives did. When I was married I truly did not know that people did more than sleep in bed.”
“He started to touch me and it was extremely uncomfortable for me. Every night would get a little bit more and [then] he started on my private areas. For a young girl, I was very innocent. I just felt horrible and violated.”
For weeks, Wall tried to resist her cousin’s advances but she also didn’t want to go against her prophet Jeffs. Church doctrine dictates that followers obey priesthood commands.
“He had complete control over me mentally and therefore because I was his property and I was his, he was able to do what he did to me,” she said as she described the alleged rape she received at the hands of her cousin. “At the time I did not know that. It was many years later that I realized the weight of what had happened and the true meaning of rape.”
For years, Wall said she kept quiet and endured the sexual assaults. She was unable to turn to her mother, sisters or anyone else for help, as no one would dare defy Jeffs’ will.
To avoid her husband, she spent nights out in the desert, huddled in the cab of her pickup truck. On one of those nights she said she suffered a miscarriage, her fourth.
“I was lying there on the ground and I saw these headlights coming up the road,” Wall said. “I just thought, ‘Oh great. Here it is. I’ve been caught and they’re going to turn me into Warren.'”
It turns out those headlights were a blessing. The driver was Lamont Bartow, a recent outcast from the church. “I had just been told by Warren that I had no place in the priesthood or with the people,” Bartow said.
Wall said Bartow, who became the new love of her life, “was there and he ultimately saved me.”
The couple’s affair caused Jeffs to finally end Wall’s marriage to Steed.
According to Wall, the prophet congratulated Steed saying, “Job well done,” an insult that propelled her to become the first of Jeffs’ followers to pursue criminal charges against him. The church community immediately lashed out against her.
“They prayed for my demise,” she said. “In their minds, testifying against their prophet was the worst thing I could have ever done. And therefore, I was one of the worst people on this earth.”
After making the FBI 10 Most Wanted List, Jeffs was arrested and charged with two counts of rape by accomplice. At the trial, Steed vehemently denied all the allegations against him and swore his allegiance to Jeffs.
But the defining moment came when Wall took the stand and went face to face with the man behind all of her suffering.
“I looked him right in the eye and I would not break. Ultimately, finally, it was him that shook his head and just looked down,” said Wall, who described the experience as cathartic. Jeffs was found guilty and sentenced on each count to five years to life.
Steed, now 27, was also charged with rape and has yet to go to trial. His attorney has objected to Wall’s book, saying it could influence the jury when his client’s trial is scheduled.
Wall is now married to Bartow, and the couple has two young children.
Seven years after the beginning of her ordeal, Wall says she finally has the life she now hopes for all the child brides still living in Colorado City, Ariz.
May 16, 2008