At 21, Elissa Wall overcame her fear of losing contact with her family forever and endangering her immortal soul when she decided to help Utah prosecutors in their sexual abuse case against polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs — a man her church believes gets his orders directly from God.
Wall is one of the few women who has gone up against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the group that broke from the Mormon church more than 100 years ago and now sits squarely at the center of a Texas child abuse investigation.
“One of the tenets you learn is that if you leave and you testify against the leaders, you are what they call an apostate and damned to hell,” said Wall, who wrote Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs.
“That’s one of the biggest things, those mind hurdles. … You have to get over this mind thing that you’re going to hell,” said Wall, whose testimony was key in convicting Jeffs last year of being an accomplice to rape for his role in forcing a 14-year-old Wall to marry her 19-year-old cousin.
The pressure to be loyal
The FLDS’ rigid sense of community and conformity could be a major hurdle for Texas authorities as they investigate allegations of sexual and physical abuse at the sect’s sprawling ranch near Eldorado in West Texas.
“It’s very rare anyone breaks away,” said Sam Brower , a Utah private investigator who has spent 4 1/2 years tracking FLDS members and helping authorities in his state and Arizona build criminal cases against them. “Most can’t bring themselves to leave their community, they’ve segregated themselves from the world and to ask them to break off from the community … they do what they’re told.”
Since April 3, when Texas Child Protective Services first entered the reclusive sect’s Yearning For Zion Ranch and seized more than 400 children, Texas and the nation have seen images of crying mothers in their uniform hairdos and identical pioneer dresses as their sun-kissed husbands stood mostly silent off to the side, in starched long-sleeve shirts and jeans.
Meanwhile, their lawyers sparred vigorously with state officials over whether the children should have been removed by CPS and placed in foster care as the agency investigated which ones, if any, suffered physical and sexual abuse.
Thanks to a Texas Supreme Court ruling that their removal was not warranted, the children are back with their families for now, albeit with several CPS-mandated restrictions.
But the case is far from over, as the criminal chapter opens in a grand jury room in Eldorado’s Schleicher County courthouse.
There, the work is just beginning for prosecutors with the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the local district attorney’s office who are expected to lay out documents recording marriages of FLDS adult men to girls under the age of 18. Witnesses expected to be called are law enforcement officers who collected the evidence and FLDS members.
But don’t expect a lot from the FLDS, Brower and others say. The pressure from family and church members can be intense and witnesses from within the sect can easily flip-flop on prosecutors, if they show up at all.
Kids may disappear
Since 2003, nine FLDS men, including Jeffs, have been tried for child sex abuse or related bigamy charges. Of those, four have been convicted, but barely because of inconsistent witnesses.
In one case, a woman who convinced a grand jury she was 16 at the time of her marriage, turned around and offered to change her testimony for money, resulting in dropped charges against her husband. In another case, a former underage victim testified against her husband, then urged leniency at his sentencing. And in another, a 17-year-old child bride told a court her husband never should have been prosecuted.
Then there’s the family pressure Wall talks about.
Brower recalled how charges were dropped against Randolph Barlow after his wife told authorities that she was 16 when she was forced into a marriage with him — then clammed up on the witness stand.
Brower watched as the woman’s mother moved from one end of a courtroom bench to another so she could have direct eye contact with her daughter.
“She got up on the stand and stopped talking,” Brower recalled. “It was watching like The Godfather.”
Given the recent CPS custody battle, Texas authorities shouldn’t expect any cooperation from the FLDS, said Stephen Singular, the author of When Men Become Gods: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, his Cult of Fear, and the Women who Fought Back.
“I would think it’d be unlikely they’d have witnesses,” he said. “There was enormous pressure put on women (in other states) not to testify against the men. I don’t see any sign it’ll be different here.”
Plus there’s the danger that any witnesses will just uproot and leave, even though FLDS parents at the ranch have been ordered not to take their children out of Texas .
“The whole pattern of this group is to move. The pressure comes and they move,” Singular said.
In addition to Texas, Utah and Arizona, the FLDS has property in South Dakota, Canada, Colorado and Idaho.
“The kids will start disappearing and all the adults will have hanging over them is a contempt citation,” Brower said.
Who are the victims?
Richard Holm, 55, a successful businessman in Utah who was a lifelong sect member until his excommuication five years ago, agreed that members would likely go underground.
Willie Jessop, Jeffs’ former bodyguard who has since become a spokesman for the group living in Texas, hedged when asked if FLDS members would go underground.
“As far as being excited about turning witnesses against their family and trying to get on the government’s agenda, I don’t know that people would be standing up to volunteer for it but I don’t know that they’d be hiding, either,” he said.
Brower said one way to combat the problems with the FLDS as witnesses is to keep the criminal case tied directly to documents, as Utah and Arizona did.
Texas authorities also have to decide whether to treat the women as victims, or accomplices.
Brower knows of no FLDS woman ever charged as an accomplice in Arizona and Utah.
But he believes sentiment is changing. It is for him.
“I used to see them as victims and I felt really sorry for them but after working these cases, I think they know better,” Brower said. “They know that underage marriage is illegal but they still defend the men and send their daughters to marry them.”