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April 14, 2008

The Cult That Wants My Kids

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By now Jeffs had assumed control of the FLDS. An unlikely messiah with his flat affect and scrawny frame, Jeffs at least seemed a gentler version of his father. But soon he was ordering FLDS members to purge their homes of books and movies, of televisions and CD players. Members were also expected to spend entire Sundays at church, listening to tapes of Warren preaching or singing in his anemic voice. By commandment, photographs of FLDS leaders hung in every living room, supposedly to deter the Angel of Death. Women could no longer wear patterned fabrics, and every dress was made from a handful of designs Jeffs had approved. People were upbraided for laughter — accused of light-mindedness. And when a teenage boy was attacked by somebody’s pit bull, Warren ordered that all the dogs in the Colorado City compound be shot.

Things only got worse for Teressa, by now in her mid-20s, as her concern for her children’s well-being grew; she knew it was only a matter of time before her husband would take a second wife.

She asked him, “How would you feel if you knew I was going to take another husband sometime in the next few years?”

Roy laughed. “That isn’t what we believe.”

“Put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel, Roy?”

“That will never happen,” he said, invoking the “law of Sarah,” which states that the first wife can be involved in choosing her sister-wives, but if she opposes plural marriage, the husband has the right to proceed without her blessing.

Meanwhile, in Colorado City, Teressa’s sister Elissa, just 14, had been promised by her stepfather to Allen Steed, 19, a first cousin. Elissa called her sister in distress: She wasn’t ready for sex and babies, especially not with the son of her mother’s brother. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself, Lisie,” Teressa insisted. But Elissa was too young and scared. Despite Teressa’s passionate efforts to rally her sisters and even her mother to stop the marriage, the brethren yanked Elissa out of the eighth grade, and Jeffs wed her to Steed. People decorated their marriage bed with cookies, as if to acknowledge that she was still a child.

The arranged marriage, in which Steed regularly forced himself upon his wife, was such a perversion, such an affront, it eventually galvanized Elissa, in 2004, to leave the FLDS group for good when she was 18; Teressa left a year later, at age 25. Their older sister Becky, a plural wife of the wizened Rulon, had quit the group in 2002, at age 26. (That their oldest brother had already managed to escape the community provided something of an emotional and logistical path for the sisters.) Flush with a sense of freedom, the three turned their attention to their two teenage sisters, who would surely be forced into marriage soon if no one intervened. Desperate to protect them, Elissa overcame her fear of government and law enforcement (endemic to anyone reared in polygamy) long enough to contact a lawyer about what had happened to her; soon after, the Utah attorney general’s office got involved. Warren Jeffs was charged with rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony.

A single mother now, with a meager salary, Teressa didn’t hesitate when called to testify. “I couldn’t afford to miss work, and I didn’t want to be gone from my children. But I knew I had to,” she says. In November of 2006, she drove to the courthouse in St. George, UT, for the preliminary hearing. “And as I walked down the hall, I thought, I’m going to testify against the man most of my family believes is the most righteous in the world.” Once in the courtroom, her knees began to buckle. There, sitting at the defense table, was Jeffs, wearing that familiar expression of feigned sadness, the pitying look he gave people who he believed were going straight to hell. As Teressa tried to answer the prosecutor’s questions, she choked back tears. Then she realized she was letting Jeffs tyrannize her even here, far from his seat of power. Eventually, she regained her composure and her conviction.

“I knew,” she says, “that as long as I told the truth, it would work out.”

The trial lasted two weeks. On September 17, 2007, when the prosecutor asked Teressa the question that sought to irrevocably establish Jeffs’s guilt — “Could Warren Jeffs have stopped this marriage?” — Teressa looked Jeffs in the eye and clearly stated, “Yes, he could have stopped it. But he didn’t.” The verdict came eight days later: Jeffs was convicted on two counts of being an accomplice to rape; he received two consecutive prison terms of five years to life.

Barely a week had passed before Teressa and her children were cuddling on the sofa watching Happy Feet on TV — “I was so glad to be home, and I just wanted to sit and enjoy my children,” Teressa recalls — when a knock came at the door. A portly older man asked her name, then thrust a white envelope into her hands. “My heart hit my stomach. Even before I opened it, I knew it was bad news.”

Teressa had subconsciously been waiting for some kind of fallout from her testimony, and here it was: Even though he had initially refused to entertain Teressa’s petition, suddenly Roy was aggressively seeking a divorce and full custody. She knew that the FLDS leaders had put him up to it and that they were paying the heavy legal fees. The document demanded that Teressa return her children to Canada and pay child and spousal support. “I lost it,” she remembers. “I don’t usually cry, but that night I sobbed until I couldn’t get my breath.”

Teressa’s eyes grow moist when she tells me what is at stake. She points to the culture of sacrifice and death that is growing in the FLDS, that threatens to envelop her kids if she loses custody. “Who knows when the Priesthood will decide that everyone should drink something so they can be ‘lifted up’? I’ve had nightmares about that,” she says. “I have to protect my children.”

But the odds are decidedly against her. She is 27, uneducated, and barely able to cover the rent. Her attorney charges 24 percent interest on unpaid legal bills, which now exceed $10,000. Worse yet, her opponent, the FLDS, is deep-pocketed, with vast business and real-estate holdings, to say nothing of political connections (it is said that Warren Jeffs is still giving orders from his prison cell). And, as Canada has routinely turned a blind eye to the goings-on of the polygamist community, the courts there are unlikely to side against them in a mere custody battle. (When Teressa sought a change of venue, to the U.S., for the court proceedings, she was denied.)

While FLDS leaders typically allow young children to be raised by their mothers if parents divorce, the action against Teressa is meant to punish — and to send a message to any woman contemplating the crime of insubordination. Should the patriarchs succeed in having Teressa’s three young children taken away from her, they will silence the wives and daughters of polygamy as surely as if they’d cut out their tongues.

So far, Teressa is the only one of the three crusading Wall sisters to suffer repercussions. For her part, Elissa, whose memoir, Stolen Innocence, comes out this month, has said that she would not have been able to confront Warren Jeffs had it not been for Teressa’s flinty belief in justice and her encouragement that Elissa heed the voice inside her.

But it is all about the children now. “I want to give them what I didn’t have: a good education and some real choices,” Teressa says, steeling herself for the ruinous court battle. “I want them to have at least one parent who can make her own decisions. I want to give them gymnastics and dance and music lessons. I want them to learn to think for themselves.”

And what about Teressa — does she want anything for herself?

She gazes down the dark hall toward the bedrooms where her children are tucked in, safely asleep, for now. Outside in the snowy meadow, a coyote howls. “I want what I’ve always wanted,” she says, looking both weary and resolute. “To be a good mother.”

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