A Daring Rescue From an Arizona Religious Sect
March 4— It was not an unfamiliar experience for Flora Jessop, racing north from Phoenix in response to a desperate phone call.
Two teenagers said they feared being forced into a marriage with men who were decades older; who they might not even know, and who have other wives and dozens of children.
She said of her mission: “It’s like taking someone straight from hell — and bringing them to heaven.”
The sect is called the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints — the FLDS, a tiny breakaway group of Mormons.
Based in Colorado City, Ariz., an isolated community of about 10,000 straddling the Arizona-Utah border, the FLDS oversees a strangely backwards-looking society.
Women and girls wear outmoded styles covering everything below the neck and above the ankles and wrists. They’re prohibited from cutting their hair or having contact with anyone who’s not an FLDS member.
Almost all of the familiar trappings of modern American life are declared taboo as well: No movie theaters, TV, video, computers or even popular music.
The FLDS owns or controls just about everything in Colorado City: the houses, businesses, local government — even the jobs. And Jessop claims they also exert absolute control over personal life — some women are required to have a child every year.
As Jessop approached Colorado City in darkness, her fear of being detected grew. She is infamous in Colorado City for helping girls escape on past missions.
“Law enforcement is not trustworthy up there,” she told ABCNEWS’ John Quiñones, who accompanied her on this mission. The local police force is manned by faithful FLDS followers.
Everything in and around Colorado City is controlled by the sect leader, 48-year-old Warren Jeffs — who Jessop says “is probably one of the most evil and dangerous men I’ve ever known — in my life.”
But after a five-hour drive, Jessop found the two 16-year-old girls at a safe house. They had run from their homes.
When Jessop met Fawn Holm and Fawn-Louise Broadbent for the first time in the safe house, both were eager to hit the road immediately.
“I don’t want to become some 50-year-old man’s wife,” Broadbent said.
“I don’t want to be a polygamist,” said Holm.
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the two girls joined Jessop on the tense ride to freedom.
They arrived in Phoenix unscathed and undetected, where the teenagers were placed in state-supervised care.
But first, they soaked up some of the little pleasures of American life, sometimes for the first time: they got their ears pierced; they ordered out for pizza; they watched MTV.
A Hometown Tour
Afterwards, Quiñones and Jessop made another trip to Colorado City — so that Jessop could confront her past, and the hell that she says was her childhood.
On this trip, she wore a disguise because she says the last time she dared visit in daylight she was detained and beaten by FLDS enforcers.
She showed Quiñones a field where she says every year for five years people gathered to be lifted into heaven. Previous leaders told them it would happen, she says.
Many of the homes in town are under construction, and each family has so many children that a dozen kids in a family is not uncommon.
Ironically, the American taxpayer pays for much of this lifestyle. Recent records show in one year residents here collected more than $8-million from social services — including food stamps, welfare, health care — but the entire town paid less than $100,000 in income taxes.
“They are told to go on welfare,” Jessop said. “It’s called, “bleeding the beast.” They find it amusing that Satan is supporting God’s work.”
Quiñones and Jessop also visited the house she grew up in, with a father, two mothers and 27 brothers and sisters. It is also where her flight from her community originated, she said. She said she was sexually abused there.
Her father denies her allegation and she says she tried to have him prosecuted but got nowhere — and so she ran to that world she’d been taught to fear.
Waco or Jonestown?
Quiñones and Jessop returned to their car. But within minutes, they were stopped.
“We are just a little community that is trying to mind our business and everyone else is trying to mind it for us,” said Colorado City police chief Sam Roundey.
Roundey acknowledged the community was based on polygamy, but said allegations of forced marriages and child abuse are exaggerated.
Quiñones tried to interview FLDS leader Jeffs, but he has become increasingly hard to find.
His sprawling complex has become a fortress — a 12-foot-high wall was recently erected around the houses and businesses.
And today, there are many who worry that the entire town of Colorado City is preparing for the fulfillment of a prophecy: the ultimate battle between good and the evil outside.
Some worry about a repeat of the fiery siege at Waco 11 years ago — or something perhaps even more chilling.
Chatwin was one of 21 men who was recently kicked out of the FLDS for criticizing Jeffs and speaking out against forced marriages — especially with underage girls.
Jeffs has the kind of control over his followers that Jones had, Chatwin said. “People will follow blindly and if he says, pull out this poison Kool-Aid — people do it.”
For the Children
For 50 years the State of Arizona has left the people of Colorado City pretty much alone in their isolation — free to practice polygamy and shun the outside world.
But that could soon change — and if the authorities descend on Warren Jeffs’ compound with any show of force, people both inside and outside the community have chilling fears about the possible outcome.
Jessop doesn’t pretend to know the future, but she’s certain the past is enough to guide her crusade.
“There are two things coming out of polygamy: Victims and abusers,” she says.
“The knowledge that there’s another child out there that’s going to need me” motivates her, Jessop says. “And, then I’d do anything in the world to keep them safe.”