March 1, 2006 ó – Last summer was Laurene Jessop’s first trip back to polygamist-run Colorado City, Ariz., since her escape from, what was, to her, an isolated and forbidding world 18 months earlier. She had no idea what to expect.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “I want to be able to walk through town and not be handcuffed, and if the police officers decide to handcuff me, what to say?”
Laurene said she was taken by force to a mental institution three times for disobeying her husband. She finally got away with the help of an anti-polygamy activist, and won custody of her five children.
Laurene returned to Colorado City several months ago to prove to herself that the polygamist sect that runs this town no longer has power over her, and to confront the demons from her past, including sexual abuse by her father.
Even after all that, Laurene found it difficult to completely break free from her past life. Recently, her journey took a strange U-turn back to Colorado City.
Feeling Like an Intruder
People in Colorado City are taught from a very young age that outsiders are evil, Laurene said. They wear clothes from another century, and they run from “Primetime’s” cameras as they documented Laurene Jessop’s journey.
The people in Colorado City also submit fervently to the rules of Warren Jeffs, a man they call “the prophet.”
Jeffs, a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, is in hiding, wanted on charges of forcing underage girls to marry older men. FDLS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. The Mormon religion banned polygamy in 1890.
Laurene’s father had four wives and 56 children. She said it was an oppressive childhood, with the outside world completely shut out.
“I remember one time looking out the window just feeling like I was trapped and wishing that I was free,” Laurene said, pointing to the house where she grew up.
At 19, she married Val Jessop, an older man the sect chose for her. Her sister, Marie, was already married to Jessop.
“I always felt like I was an intruder,” Laurene said.
Laurene and her sister have eight children with Val Jessop –five by Laurene and three by her older sister.
But Laurene says Marie was bitterly jealous from day one, beginning from the time she and Val consummated the marriage. She said her sister was even present when they had sex.
“He invited her into our bed. She just hugged his back — hugged him all the way through,” Laurene said. “It was very strange … painful. And I was very shy. I was scared. I didn’t dare say — like I should have — this is our wedding night. We should go to a motel, or we should have our own privacy.”
When Laurene finally spoke up about her “sister wife,” Laurene said Jessop called the sect police, who forcibly removed Laurene from her home — she says for not following the law that says plural wives must obey their husband.
“These are state-certified policemen who have been ordered by the prophet, or an elder, to come in there and arrest me,” Laurene said.
She said she was handcuffed, put in a police car and taken to a mental institution in Flagstaff, Ariz., more than 200 miles away from her children.
Laurene returned home and said she was sent to the institution three more times. She says she found it impossible to be the perfect servant to her husband’s every whim, even though it was the law of the land.
“I was trapped,” she said. “I felt like I had done my very best in trying to live my religion. I was taught that the only rights a woman has is to be obedient to her husband.”
That’s the prevalent attitude of the community, captured by a frequently used slogan: “Keep sweet.”
“That means … don’t show any emotion. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make any trouble,” Laurene said.
Laurene was desperate to escape, but there seemed to be no way to take her children with her — until she met anti-polygamist activist Flora Jessop.
‘I Feel Empowered’
Having escaped from the polygamous community as a teenager, Flora now rescues others from the sect. With Flora’s help, Laurene finally ran far away to Phoenix, where she found an apartment and won custody of her children — daughters Luanne, Jennifer and Valene, and sons Anthony and Thomas.
“It’s not only the fear of leaving. It’s the fear of how do I take care of my children once I’m out there?” said Flora.
Flora said that Laurene’s leaving the sect makes her a hero. And returning to Colorado City to confront her past also makes her a survivor.
Once she would cower before the police, but when she returned, she stood her ground when challenged by cops and even confronted one of the policemen who she says took her to the institution.
“I feel empowered,” Laurene said. “I feel like I could stand there and look that man in the eyes.”
But Laurene’s journey had just begun. She couldn’t truly leave her past behind until she confronted some dark secrets.
In Colorado City, Laurene says men wield absolute power over both wives and children. For Laurene, a much harsher indoctrination into the male-dominated culture began before she was even married. She said she was sexually abused by her father. “The sexual abuse started about the time I started developing,” she said. “There was no safe place to go. There would be several of us girls in the room, and he would come into the house and go around and put — kiss each one of the girls — put his hand down your blouse, say, ‘Oh, looks like you’re getting bigger, you know, you’re developing, you’re coming along very well here.'”
Laurene and 12 of her sisters reported being molested, though they say the abuse stopped short of actual intercourse. In 1983 their father, Jack Cooke, pleaded guilty to sexual assault and went to prison for five years.
“He took my virtue,” said Laurene. “And I think he should have got more than five years in prison.”
Jack Cooke is now 76 years old and hasn’t seen Laurene in 22 years. In an interview with “Primetime,” with Laurene listening from a nearby room, Cooke admitted to abusing his daughters.
“I have committed — uh, fondling and touching my daughters improperly, but I claimed … on the same premise … as our religion,” he said. “I didn’t know it was abuse. I didn’t view it as abuse. … It wasn’t a sexual deal.”
Cooke said he viewed the abuse as “no big deal.” He also claimed that the contact was “consensual.” “And every intimacy which I had with them, they understood perfectly that if I did anything they didn’t like, to tell me and I would not do it,” Cooke said.
After hearing her father say these things and upset that he would claim that she and her sisters ever consented to his actions, Laurene emerged from the room to confront him.
Finally, her father offered a sort of apology. “I’m not trying to minimize the sexual things,” Cooke said. “All I can say right now — with these things happening to you — all I can say is I’m sorry.”
‘It’s in My Blood’
After leaving the sect, Laurene and her children began a new life in Phoenix — 400 miles away from Colorado City. In awarding custody of the children to Laurene, an Arizona judge concluded their polygamist community was dominated by abuse.
Activist Flora Jessop had been at Laurene’s side almost constantly. She understood the struggle ahead for the family.
“When you have a second-grade education and five children, how do you feed them? How do you dress them? How do you give them a house? How do you put a roof over their heads?” Flora said.
Laurene and her kids lived in subsidized housing and received food stamps and other assistance from the government.
Meanwhile, her estranged husband, Val, lived alone in an empty house on the edge of Colorado City. For reasons he won’t discuss, FLDS ex-communicated him and took away his other wife. He said he missed his children most of all.
Val denied asking the police to arrest Laurene for disobeying him, and he claimed she was mentally ill and violent. He maintained he was the true victim, because he lost his children, and he questioned the authority of the man-made laws that awarded Laurene custody.
Val Jessop defended his “plural marriage.” “I was born Mormon, OK?” he said. “It’s in my blood, you know? I’m not going to go be something else. I’m who I am.”
When she confronted her father over the summer, Laurene wasn’t ready to forgive him for her lost childhood or the other damage caused by polygamy. But six months after her meeting with her father, Laurene was ready to forgive. “I’ve been in communication with him, talked several times with him. I feel complete forgiveness toward him,” she said.
She now believes that sexual abuse of children was accepted — and rampant — in Colorado City, and that her father was made a scapegoat by the polygamous sect.
“He’s the only one that was really held accountable for what he did. And other men were doing the same thing,” she said. “But what it did was shut the women up, the girls up, from telling. … And I think he, he’s paid the price for what he did.”
Change of Heart
Meanwhile, all was not well in Phoenix, where one of her two sons was depressed and brooding. Anthony said he would do almost anything to get back home and even admitted he talked about blowing up his school in Phoenix.
Laurene had come a long way, but she also admitted to a frightening inner conflict — and a strange force pulling her back to Colorado City and Val Jessop, the husband she shared with another wife.
Laurene told “Primetime” she was terrified of the community and determined never to return. But months after meeting her father, she got into her car alone and drove six hours to Colorado City to see her ex-husband, Val Jessop.
“I was really scared because I didn’t know how Val would be,” said Laurene.
Laurene said her former husband had “mellowed. And he was nice to me. And the children wanted him,” she said.
After that meeting, Laurene agreed to bring the children home — under the condition that Val not take any additional wives.
“He has said he wouldn’t,” Laurene said. “If he does, I will leave. I won’t live in polygamy again.”
Two years after helping Laurene escape, anti-polygamy activist Flora Jessop says she’s not surprised that women who escape polygamy sometimes go back.
“Even when they come out, they find it difficult not to be drawn back in,” Flora said. “They’re all trying to overcome an entire lifetime of intense control and indoctrination.”
The reunited Jessop family now lives in a rented house just outside Colorado City, and they all seemed happy to be back together. Anthony, the son who had talked about blowing up his school in Phoenix, seemed transformed.
“It’s a miracle, absolute miracle that they’re holding hands,” Anthony said of his parents.
And Laurene is convinced Val will not take another wife.
Yet when pressed, Val admitted he still believed that the fugitive sect leader, Warren Jeffs, is the one true prophet of God.
“I don’t have the option,” Val said of plural marriage. But he also said another marriage had not been revealed to him “through the legitimate authority” — the prophet, Warren Jeffs. If Val’s intention seems uncertain, Laurene said she would take her chances and stay — as long as she remains the one and only woman of this house. “And I’ve forgiven him. I know the Lord loves us, the children, and he wants us to be a family,” she said.
But Laurene was adamant that she wouldn’t live a life of polygamy again. “It’s too much pain that way.”
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