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Former child bride, 6 kids escape Az polygamist sect

She never said a word, yet the very presence of Ruby Jessop represented a victory after a 12-year struggle to leave the polygamist enclave of Colorado City, said her older sister Flora Jessop, who stood Tuesday with Ruby and law enforcement officials who helped her and her six children safely leave the Northern Arizona community.

"I thought this day would never come," Flora Jessop said. "And it has been amazing to have my sister back."

Flora Jessop said her younger sister, now 26, first asked her for help leaving the community — which controls every aspects of its members lives and forces underage girls into arranged marriages — when she was 14 years old. The sisters were thwarted at each attempt to get Ruby Jessop out, Flora said.

Located on the border of Arizona and Utah, isolated Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, were founded by members of a group that broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint and added "Fundamental" to the name of their sect. The FLDS leader, "prophet" Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexual assault charges stemming from taking two underage girls, 12 and 15, as polygamous wives. Ten other men were convicted in the 2008 case, in which 400 children were rounded up and later returned to their FLDS families.

"Every time I went to Colorado City for 12 years looking for my sister, she was shoved into a car and driven out of town as fast as they could get her," Flora Jessop said, speaking to reporters at a Phoenix press conference arranged by state Attorney General Tom Horne.

"I think for every day for 12 years that Ruby spent in the marriage that she was in she wished she could leave, but when you have the entire community of ones policing you from the mothers to the sisters to the in laws to the neighbors and reporting back on you, the opportunity is scarce."

And leaving the community comes at a cost. While Ruby Jessop successfully left five months ago, she returned because she faced losing her children.

"Ruby was told that she didn't have the right to take her children, she can leave, but she doesn't have the right to take her kids, and she doesn't have the right to visit them, see them, hear from them, she's no longer part of the United Order," her older sister said.

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In December, Ruby Jessop left again, in the middle of the night when her husband, 32-year-old John Haven Barlow, was gone for 15 minutes.

"She was able to have someone pick her up and they left the community," Flora Jessop said. "However she was followed by the security, church security, everywhere she went."

Still Ruby Jessop was able to file for divorce at the Mohave County Court in December 2012. The court also granted her temporary custody of her children — and the support of the Sheriff's Office in executing the court order.

"Without that we would not have six children in Phoenix today," Flora Jessop said.

Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said the problem facing women like Ruby Jessop is that Colorado City has its own law enforcement which is loyal to the FLDS sect.

"Unfortunately it's all corrupt," Sheahan said. "The Marshal's Office works strictly under the FLDS and Warren Jeffs and this is what makes it so difficult for people like Ruby to escape."

Ruby Jessop's case was also difficult because her husband is a member of the Marshal's Office as well as a the fire department, Sheahan said.

"Last week on this issue the marshals would not cooperate with our deputies who were working with process servers with the court order to locate the children and turn them over to Ruby," Sheahan said. "They succumbed to the court order and turned the children over to us, we were able to reunite Ruby and the children but it took all day to do it."

Lawyer: Account is 'reckless'

An attorney for the Marshal's Office disagrees with that account. Salt Lake City attorney Blake Hamilton represents Hildale and the local law enforcement agency, which operates in both Hildale and Colorado City. 

"Mr. Sheahan's statements are not supported by what I understand has transpired there," Hamilton said. "The Marshal's Office never really played any kind of role because they weren't asked to. Ruby never contacted them, they've never played any kind of role in prohibiting her from leaving or her from getting her children. And in fact if requested they would have helped, they would have assisted, that's what they do."

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The marshals are certified peace officers in both Arizona and Utah and have good working relationships with both Washington County, Utah and Mohave County, Arizona, Hamilton said.

"I think that was very reckless of him to make those statements, because the deputies, his deputies, work hand in hand with the Marshal's Office and I've not been made aware of any conflicts ever happening between the Mohave County Sheriff's Office and the Marshal's Office," Hamilton said.

There is no evidence on wrongdoing by the Marshal's Office or any of its members, Hamilton said.

"At this point in time he's been saying that for over a year now and again using that as support for his proposed legislation but there has been no criminal charges filed against anyone in the Marshal's Office and there's been no decertification action taken by POST [which certifies law enforcement officers] in Arizona against the Marshal's Office," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said he doesn't understand the Attorney General's motives but believes that Horne's goal is to decertify the Marshal's Office.

"I think it was really reckless and inflammatory what the Attorney General stated," Hamilton said. "You would think that if he really did have evidence of that that he would bring criminal charges or that he would go throughout the administrative process of having those officers, the individual officers that have been accused of that and there's evidence to support that, have them decertified."

Hildale and Colorado City are facing a suit filed last June by the U.S. Justice Department that alleges the Marshal's Office "inappropriately used its state-granted law enforcement authority to enforce the edicts of the FLDS, to the detriment of non-FLDS members." 

The suit alleges local marshals allow FLDS members to destroy the crops of non-members, destroy property, and trespass on the land of non-sect members.

Horne said his office is cooperating with that suit and that other investigations are in progress.

"I'd love to say something," Horne said. "Unfortunately the rules are that when there's an ongoing criminal investigation I'm not supposed to say anything."

Horne did say that stories like Ruby Jessop's are why legislation is needed to divert funding from the Colorado City Marshal's Office to the Sheriff's Office, which will have to pull back from patrolling the area when temporary funding expires later this year.

"There are more people like Ruby in Colorado City," the attorney general said. "The Sheriff's Office may have to withdraw due to lack of funds."

Legislation that would have transferred funds from the Marshal's Office to the Mohave County Sheriff's Office, SB1433, failed to pass the Arizona Legislature in 2012 but Horne said a similar bill is in the works for the current session.

Sheriff: 'We don't trust them'

Sheahan said diverting funds from the Marshal's Office to the Sheriff's Office would let him hire the deputies to provide fair and impartial law enforcement to the area so that he could protect both the community and his own officers.

"We call it conflict because they are not our allies, we don't trust them and I wouldn't trust them as backup for our deputies," Sheahan said. "It's dangerous situation for my deputies, that's for sure."

Flora Jessop, an anti-polygamy advocate who has helped other women and children leave the community, said that "the single largest thing that will impact this fight" is the decertification of the Marshal's Office.

"As long as that Marshal's Office is in place, the FLDS and Warren Jeffs have a power base to control, manipulate women and children," Flora Jessop said. "With that Marshal's Office they have been able to keep women locked away and take children from women and keep them trapped."

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Flora Jessop and her younger sister have first-hand, personal knowledge of the FLDS practice of marrying underage girls to older male relatives - with or without their consent. Ruby Jessop was 14 when she married a man six years older than her. Barlow, who goes by his middle name, has been reported as either — or both — Jessop's second cousin and brother-in-law, as well as her husband.

"When you have any kind of sexual assault it is a physical assault, it's a sexual assault, it's a psychological assault," Flora Jessop said. "As victim, it's the psychological damage that they do, deep inside of here, to who you are as a person, that's the damage, as a victim of abuse, that is the most difficult to overcome."

Jeffs 'controls every dynamic of their lives'

Having Jeffs behind bars doesn't mean that conditions in Colorado City have improved, Flora Jessop said.

"I think that there's something that needs to be understood about the FLDS: Warren Jeffs may be in prison but Warren Jeffs is still in absolute, total control in Colorado City," Flora Jessop said. "It is his orders that they follow."

Flora Jessop said that control extends to putting the everyone on a diet of beans and water, when community children get up and go to bed, and even who they pray to. Recently the community has been told that parents no longer have right to their children, as they now belong to the church itself, she said.

"He controls every dynamic of their lives," Flora Jessop said. "Every part of their day is working for the prophet. Period."

The restrictions would be reimposed on the children if they were to return for visitation, Flora Jessop said.

"They will be reprimanded and punished for not staying faithful to the prophet, they will be taught the entire time they are there by everyone in the community that their mother is wicked, bad for taking them to hell," Flora Jessop said. "It is something that we have battled before and with very detrimental consequences for the children leaving them feeling very confused hurt and often times very, very angry."

The mental aspects of the abuse that keeps members from leaving continue to affect women and children after they leave the community.

"It's also the least accepted form of abuse," Flora Jessop said. "We need to change that, we need to recognize the damage that's done on a psychological level because that's the one that is the lasting damage."

For now the children are having their first encounters with everything from "real clothes" to bicycles and their mother is experiencing simple freedoms she has never had before.

Ruby Jessop has started a long process of recovery by making a list of what she and her children need in their new lives.

Not speaking on the advice of her attorney while she has yet only temporary custody of her children, Ruby let her older sister speak for her.

"Driving away from her house when she wants to, having the right to put gas in her own vehicle, having the right to be a mom to her children and making choices is probably the biggest one - something she's never been permitted to do her entire life," Flora Jessop said. "She's taking the time to do just get herself together, she told me, 'I don't even know who I am' - she's never been permitted."

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Rebekah Zemansky/TucsonSentinel.com

Ruby Jessop with her six children, ages 2-10, who are enjoying wearing 'real clothes' and riding bikes for the first time.

Ruby's wish list

Donations can be made in Ruby Jessop's name through Defenders of Children.

  • Toiletries, especially toilet paper, paper towels, soaps and toothpaste
  • Laundry detergent
  • Food and restaurant gift cards
  • Clothing for six children (four girls and two boys, ages 2-10)
  • A van to accommodate six children
  • A house with a confidential address in metro Phoenix