PHOENIX — Flora Jessop snakes her white Suburban through morning freeway traffic as if it were a Mini Cooper.
One hand is on the steering wheel, the other darts between a plastic coffee cup and her ever-ringing cell phone. A Camel dangles from the corner of her mouth.
Jessop, 34, is on her way to a meeting on human trafficking, in which people are smuggled into the United States and forced to work as prostitutes or laborers.
Once there, she listens intently and takes notes: Would Elizabeth Smart be considered trafficked? How about forced procreation?
It seems a thin thread to Jessop’s proclaimed mission: combating abuses she says permeate a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border. She is certainly not the first — advocates in both states have been at it for decades.
But Jessop, who left the enclave 18 years ago, has shown a certain flair for the role, dramatically spiriting two teen girls across state borders to safety and making tantalizing allegations that turn out to be true often enough to keep the public, media and government officials listening.
She came up with the hypothesis — widely ignored at the time — that Elizabeth Smart had been snatched by a would-be polygamist. Last month, Jessop led the national media to a new polygamist outpost in West Texas.
So what to make of her other claims about life in the fold of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which dominates the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.? Of genetic problems caused by its ongoing practice of polygamy and intermarriage, rampant welfare fraud, of young girls trafficked to Canada and Mexico as brides?
Not much, say officials in the two states and Canada.
Other antipolygamist activists question Jessop’s tactics and, occasionally, her motives. Jessop likes the publicity, they say, and she’ll embellish the truth to get it. They call her names. Norma Rae. Erin Brockovich. Joan of Arc.
The last one isn’t so far-fetched: Jessop is by all accounts a crusader and, because of threats on her life, sometimes dons body armor.
“I know what I’m doing is making a lot of people up there hate me, but that’s OK because someday they’re going to be free,” Jessop says.
Always on the move: Flora Jessop’s cell phone rings nonstop from the time she leaves the human trafficking meeting until she arrives, two days later, in Eldorado, Texas.
Fox TV’s Greta Van Sustern calls. So does KAAA/KZZZ radio in Bullhead City, Ariz. And John Quinones from “PrimeTime Live.” Reporters all over the West want the answer to the question posed in that morning’s issue of the Eldorado Success: Who is Flora Jessop and why is she coming to Eldorado?
As it turns out, it is a complicated question. In a news conference that day, Jessop made only a passing reference to herself, instead focusing on the town’s newest neighbors — FLDS members seeking refuge, she said, from legal pressures in Utah and Arizona.
The FLDS church practices a 19th-century version of Mormonism that includes plural marriage, a tenet of the early faith long abandoned by the mainstream LDS Church.
“I encourage people to educate themselves about the abuses and the FLDS,” Jessop said, ticking off her standard list of offenses.
What she didn’t say is, every one of the claims has been investigated in Utah, Arizona and Canada and, so far, been found to be without merit.
By 9 p.m., Jessop was headed back out of town.
In the name of her sister: It has been this way since January, when Jessop helped Fawn Holm, 16, and Fawn Broadbent, 17, leave Colorado City as a Phoenix television reporter captured the escape on tape. There are other children, she says, who want out of a life of servitude, of being traded across borders and from house-to-house.
In between car rides and plane flights and cell phone calls, Jessop explains what drew her into the fight three years ago: what happened to her sister Ruby, born the day Jessop fled the twin towns.
But the facts about Ruby are cloudy. Jessop portrays her as a captive woman married unwilling at age 15 to a stepbrother, Haven Barlow. Jessop says Ruby begged for her help and that she “promised I’d do whatever I could.”
Here is the other side: State child-welfare workers and other sources say Ruby is happily married, a mother of two who has no desire to leave Colorado City.
Jessop doesn’t buy it. “Let Ruby come talk to me, look me in the eyes and tell me she’s happy where she’s at,” says Jessop, who has not been able to talk to her sister or their mother since these events in 2001. “Until that happens, I’ll continue fighting for her.”
Still, you wonder if the girl she is really fighting for is herself.
Breaking free: Jessop was 13 when, with the encouragement of a grandmother, she told child-welfare workers her father had sexually abused her. The state, in what Jessop considers her first betrayal, placed her in the custody of her uncle, Fred Jessop.
She remained a virtual prisoner in his home for three years.
“That was the beginning of the nightmare, and that’s why I do what I do,” Jessop says.
Isolated from other children, Jessop finished high school through a mail-order GED course. She changed beds and cared for babies at the in-home birthing clinic run by her aunt.
“I remember wishing I could die,” she says.
At 14, Jessop was told she would be married to Sam Barlow, a peace officer with a mean reputation. She says Barlow taunted her at church, promising he would “tame” her.
Touch me, she answered, and you’re dead. There was no marriage.
But Jessop’s reputation for willfulness grew. She ran away a time or two. She talked to boys — a no-no tantamount to having sex, in FLDS teachings.
Once some kids, who considered Jessop wicked, pelted her with stones as she sat on the bank of Short Creek.
At some point, a bit of advice was passed to Jessop: Marriage would make her a free adult.
So when her father offered an ultimatum — enter a mental hospital or marry a cousin she had been caught talking to — Jessop acquiesced.
On May 3, 1986, Jessop, then 16, and Philip LeGrande Jessop were wed in Las Vegas. Jessop waited 10 days and then took off.
“Poor Phil,” says Ben Bist- line, a former FLDS member who aided Jessop as a teen. “He loved her. He kept sending her money. Of course, she was not going to come back.”
Doing it her way: Flora Jessop wound up in Kansas City, Mo., where she got a job as a cashier at a Hen House grocery store. Her long hair was gone; she traded her pioneer-style dresses for more risqué clothes and heavy makeup.
People who knew Jessop then figured she was half crazy because of the unbelievable things she said about her past.
“The whole polygamy thing, I had never heard of it,” says Terri Stine, still one of Jessop’s closest friends. “We thought she was a good storyteller, a real good storyteller.”
The view changed after Harry Reasoner and a “60 Minutes” crew showed up at Stine’s house, where Jessop then lived, to tape an interview with her.
The show aired Oct. 5, 1986, and centered mainly on life in the twin towns. Jessop’s star turn came at the end, when she told Reasoner about marrying her cousin. “There’s not a chance I’ll go back there,” she said.
And she seemed intent on proving it, saying back then she didn’t care if she lived or died. She became a hard-drinking cocaine fiend, finally walking away from that life when “I looked in the mirror and couldn’t see what color my eyes were, they were sunk back so bad.”
A relationship yielded a child, but not stability. In 1990, when Jessop’s daughter Shauna was a month old, she moved to Phoenix. She worked as a topless dancer, known as “Jessie,” and made more than enough to get by on as a single mom.
She quit dancing in 1994, shortly before she met a marine mechanic named Tim. “God gave him to me,” Jessop says. “I still had so much hatred in me. It was time for me to let it go, to start living instead of hating.”
Jessop became a stay-at-home mom, caring for her daughter and Tim’s from a previous relationship. Boat trips and long rides on a custom three-wheeler Tim built helped shed her anger, as did long talks with Tim’s mom. She read and reread a self-help book called Toxic Parents, of which she has given dozens of copies away.
Any anger she harbors is focused on the FLDS community, the child-welfare system and her father. She says she understands why her mother couldn’t help her. “She had babies to protect.”
But like many things in Jessop’s life, it is a bit more complicated than that. “I do understand why she didn’t do it for me, but why didn’t she do it for Ruby? Who was she protecting then?”
And just like that, Ruby brings the past back.
Under scrutiny: Whatever the facts of Ruby’s case, Jessop feels she failed to protect her sister. That belief has made her zealous about unmasking the inner workings of the FLDS community.
The work often takes her far from home. Last week, Jessop went to Florida to meet with attorneys about a possible lawsuit; this week she traveled to Utah, stopping in southern Utah to check out some rumors and then proceeding to Salt Lake City to meet with a state investigator and consult on a made-for-TV movie on polygamy.
And that means she is often away from her own daughter even as she focuses on saving other people’s children.
“She’s at that age where she has a life of her own now,” Jessop says of her child. “So I think that makes the transition a little easier for her.”
Jessop’s approach has won her both fans and critics, among them some early supporters who were incensed over the way she hustled the Fawns out of Colorado City, handed them to the media and then spirited them out of reach of Arizona authorities.
“She is well-spoken, attractive, sufficiently committed and a product of that culture,” Bob Curran wrote in an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune. But Jessops’ exaggerations and fabrications only hurt our cause.
“The abuses are so manifest and outrageous that simply telling the truth about them offers our best chance of success,” wrote Curran, an original backer of Help the Child Brides. Curran quit the group this winter.
Others say the abuses Jessop claims are “not commonplace” in the polygamous culture. “What she is really saying is ‘abuse happened to me,’ ” says Joanne Timpson Yarrish, a midwife in Centennial Park, Ariz., a separate polygamous community just down the road from the twin cities.
“If her goal is to give people choices, we absolutely support her desire to make sure those resources are there,” Yarrish says.
Staying the course: Among Jessop’s fans, however, is Rowenna Erickson, also an antipolygamist activist.
“What she is doing raises a lot of eyebrows and people get upset because she comes across as very militant,” Erickson says. “She believes nobody cares like she does. I understand that. You get pretty tired of having people brush you off when you know the seriousness of the crimes going on.”
Jessop is unapologetic. Consider what happened to Ruby, she says. Or Mattie Wayman, a girl returned to the FLDS enclave by child-welfare workers earlier this year. What about the Fawns? Or even her own past?
“What I do know,” she says, “is if one of these girls can pull herself out of there and a live a life free from the pain, the abuse, then it will all be worth it.”