Filed Under Yearning For Zion Ranch, FLDS
On July 26, 1953, soon-three-year-old Val Jessop lay asleep in his bed in the family’s cozy two-room shack in Short Creek, Arizona, on the Utah border. This sparse home was shared by his mother, older brother, and three sisters. But for the adults in this little fundamentalist Mormon community, sleeping was the last thing on their minds—they had received word that the Arizona State Police and soldiers from the National Guard were about to conduct a raid.
Even today, Val can still remember the horror of that raid—“a crystal clear recollection of all the horrific events that turned my peaceful world upside down,” he relates. He remembers hiding under the bed “when two men in uniforms burst in with a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other.” But his mother was not there, for she had gone to the schoolhouse for prayer and singing hymns—gathering, waiting for the officers to arrive. As they approached with lights flashing and sirens screaming, the group had raised the American flag and sang America the Beautiful. It was 4:30 a.m.
But this community’s long nightmare had only begun. First, all thirty-one fathers were arrested and taken away, locked up 265 miles away in the county jail in Kingman. For the next few days, Mohave County Judge J.W. Faulkner held a kangaroo court in the same schoolhouse where they had prayed and sang. Val’s mother appeared in court on his third birthday, July 31. The judge passed a sentence of unlawful cohabitation and ordered that the children be taken from their mothers. They were now all wards of the State. The very day Val’s mother had delivered him into this world, the judge ruled to deliver him into the hands of strangers.
The next day, August 1, the community’s 236 children were quickly rounded up to be taken away from their parents. Scared and frantically crying children were taken from the arms of their bereaved mothers. Val remembers hiding in the folds of his mother’s long dress, looking up with fear at the officer. Then in one terrifying moment, leaving a memory that is forever etched in his mind, the man grabbed him and carried him away to an awaiting bus. “For years afterwards,” Val said, “I was traumatized at the mere sight of a police officer.” He also notes that added to this trauma was the fear of being adopted out to someone else, forever separated from his family, which was precisely their known plan and intent for all the children.
But the mothers would not give in to this unbearable act, eventually forcing the authorities to relent and let them go with their children. Val, his brother, and sisters were reunited with their mother, and settled in for the long journey to Phoenix. While busses pulled away, washing machines stood idle with clothing still in them. Children’s toys lay abandoned in walkways. Vegetables and canning jars lay unattended in the steamy process of canning. Bread still baked in the wood-burning ovens, where fires would soon grow cold. But the fires in their hearts never grew cold for the community and people they were forcibly ripped away from. As Merrill Jessop, the presiding elder at the Yearning For Zion Ranch, later noted, “not one apostatized or went away. They all came back, every person.”
On the first day of the raid, Arizona Governor John Howard Pyle proclaimed it to be “a momentous police action against insurrection,” characterizing these innocent people as participants in “the foulest conspiracy you could possibly imagine,” producing nothing less than “white slaves.” Yet in the next governor’s race, because of this deplorable raid, Pyle lost his re-election.
The news media’s reaction was by in large negative, describing the events as “odious” and “un-American.” One reporter stated, its “only American parallel is the federal actions against Native Americans in the nineteenth century.” Merrill Jessop related that one Phoenix officer confided to him, “If I’d known what I was getting into, I would never, ever [have] come. I would have quit my job. I would have done anything!”
With the long bus ride behind them and following a short stay in the Phoenix National Guard Armory, Val’s mother and her four children stayed in the home of an elderly Mormon couple. Later they were moved to some welfare projects. But finally, after two years, in May, 1955, they were able to return to their beloved Short Creek. But it was not just his experience of being taken away from his mother as a three-year-old whereby he would know the agony of separation of family, but as a husband and father as well.
Seventeen years after the raid, as with so many young men his age, Val was drafted to serve his country in the Vietnam War. It is quite interesting that, even though he had experienced this trauma regarding the police officers, he himself was trained as a part of the military police. But when he returned from his tour of duty, he had no interest whatsoever in continuing in that field.
Life’s Unfolding Drama
Back in Short Creek, which by then was renamed Colorado City, six months later, on October 10, 1972, Val took his first wife, Marie. Then, five years later, on May 13, 1977, he married Laurene, Marie’s sister by the same father. They had no children for sixteen years. Following corrective surgery for Val, in the next nine years, Marie had three children and Laurene had five, three girls and two boys.
Yet things did not go well in the family. After two years of marriage to Marie, she confided to Val that she had been molested by her father, Jack Cooke. Val was shocked! ”This was not something that took place in our community,” he related. In the next two years, Marie slowly and cautiously divulged more information. Then in 1976, she revealed that she had been raped by her father. Totally repulsed and angry, Val confronted him, whereupon he tried to deny it. Val also told the prophet at that time, Leroy S. Johnson, who was then 78. But unfortunately, the matter was not addressed openly. Why? Out of fear, shame, and embarrassment, the children would not admit any of this to others. It had taken four years of marriage before Marie would even tell Val. Not until 1982 did three of the younger children—one boy and two girls— around the age of sixteen, finally come forward. Jack had repeatedly abused his children, including Laurene. He pleaded guilty to sexual assault and spent five years in prison, and was also excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
The scars of those evil acts ran deep in Marie and Laurene, both of whom began seeing counselors. Now in this new family of their own, conflicts began to arise between these two sister-brides. Marie was hard on Laurene, as well as on her children, and Val notes that she was also deceptive regarding this. Today, they also know that Laurene had thyroid problems that affected her mood. With the sum of all these compounding matters, and being placed on different mood-altering drugs by a licensed counselor with the Community Behavioral Health Services (CBHS), sometimes with bizarre results, Laurene was having serious emotional issues, including severe depression.
Beginning in 1998, over the next year to a year-and-a-half, Laurene made three visits to The Guidance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, a behavioral healthcare facility. In December, 1999, she was experiencing extreme depression and complications from the medication, and by order of the CBHS counselor was placed in The Guidance Center for the third time.
There is no question that Laurene had her own troubling emotional issues; but in addition, it later became evident that two FLDS authority figures were acting on their own, apart from their prophet, creating troubling and even tragic problems instead of helping. These were the ones who had her committed, and even urged Val to forsake her. In time, the ill behavior of these men was recognized by the FLDS and were each disfellowshipped. But as is the case with all correction, unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
Laurene had been dealt a bad hand in life, and playing it cost her her emotional wellbeing; her children, which she signed the custody thereof to Val in January, 2000, at the direction, and what Val and Laurene regard as deception, of one of the rogue FLDS authorities who was later removed; her life as an FLDS member; and almost cost her her very life itself.
Upon being released from The Guidance Center the third and final time, in January, 2000, Laurene took a job in Flagstaff. The rogue authority had convinced them that their marriage was over. For the first time she was away from her home, community, and family. Homeless and without her children, she found a place to live, taking care of an elderly woman. That entire year, nobody helped her except the bishop, Fred Jessop, who sent her a car. That was her hardest time, she relates, when she felt abandoned by her people.
At first, heeding to those troubling men, Val took the children to see Laurene for a day or two once a month. Later, he took them on a regular basis, often in conflict with the men. Then in November, 2000, just before Thanksgiving, one of them told Laurene something that snuffed all hope from her. In utter despair, she overdosed on her medication. That very night, at 2:30 in the morning, Val was shaken out of bed and prayed for his wife. “I had no clue what was going on,” he relates. Yet, 250 miles away, Laurene’s life was in severe jeopardy. Miraculously, she survived the overdose.
Val said that from December, 1999, to April, 2004, her time in Flagstaff “was long and painful for everybody.” On April 18, 2004, her birthday, she asked him to leave the three girls with her for the week, which he did. But little did she know that, in many ways, her troubles would only escalate for the next year-and-a-half. While the rogue authorities were an ill detriment, both for her personally as well as for her family, she was about to experience a far more detrimental effect, this time from those who hated the FLDS.
A day or two later, Laurene’s brother in Phoenix, whom she had not seen in over twenty-five years, came to see her. He had called beforehand, saying that he had someone he was going to bring with him, but would not tell her who it was. When he arrived, that someone was Flora Jessop, the media-hungry anti-FLDS activist.
Laurene relates, “She told me she could help me get custody of my children; however, I had to do whatever she told me. In my vulnerable situation I agreed, yet I had no idea what chain of events would follow.”
That very day, Flora took Laurene and her three girls to Phoenix. “The next thing I knew,” she relates, “she had told my landlord I wouldn’t be back. She arranged for my belongings to be hauled to her double-wide where the children and I lived in her backyard. [Laurene slept in her motor home, and the girls slept on her living room floor.] When she got suspicious that I wanted to call Val, she took my phone.”
At this time, Val and Laurene were in constant communication. Her sudden and complete silence instantly let him know something was wrong. He notified the Flagstaff police; and for two weeks, day after day, he drove everywhere in search of them, to all the popular places where they had gone or camped, calling everyone he could think of. Finally, going on a hunch and locating Flora’s address, he drove to Phoenix and watched her home. It was not long when Laurene and the children appeared. He found his family.
Val was prepared for a conflict and had brought the court order that gave him legal custody of the children. In addition, knowing Flora, he called the Phoenix police department and arranged to have an officer there. Before it was over, there were six police cars. Of course the media was instantly called in by Flora—her supporter, TV reporter Mike Watkiss. Flora made a big spectacle of this, filled with lies and fear mongering. Val had a cell phone in a leather case on his belt, and Flora even told the officers he had a gun. With Flora’s lies and the media hype against the FLDS, along with the willing cooperation of the Phoenix officers, the officers actually ignored the court order and sent Val away without his three daughters. But this was only the beginning. What you will read now is Laurene’s account regarding these matters.
“Very shortly thereafter, Flora got an emergency custody order, over Val’s custody order. I signed whatever she told me to. I did not understand legal issues and was not given the opportunity to read the paperwork. I just signed and wrote what she told me to.” But what Laurene did not know was that the claims she signed were outrageous lies typical of Flora, including that if the children returned they would be severely punished and could even be killed as a spiritual blood atonement. In classic Flora style, the lies were both bizarre and endless.
In the days ahead, Val would once again experience the agony of having family taken away from him, even as he experienced as a three-year-old. “I was there [in Short Creek] in 1953. Then in 2004 they [civil authorities] started all over again! With the aid of Attorney Judith Morse, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Steven D. Sheldon and Flora Jessop stole my family, based completely on a stack of lies that Flora fabricated! Again I was helpless! All I could do was watch in sorrow and a feeling of utter hopelessness as they cut off all contact with my little ones, and played out their nasty show in court.”
Laurene continues regarding those initial days with Flora: “Meanwhile, she had friends disappear with my children for five weeks. I was so upset and nervous, but she kept me hopeful.” One of the things Laurene objected to before she left Flagstaff was that she did not want to be used in Flora’s typical media spectacles. Flora assured her that “she only resorted to using the media if it would help our case.” But, added Laurene, “Within a week after arriving in Phoenix, she had introduced me to Mike Watkiss,” the TV news reporter who faithfully covers Flora’s antics.
Then, before she knew it, she was on her way to New York to supposedly “talk to someone who could help my cause.” Yet to Laurene’s dismay, it was for Flora’s cause instead. “I was more than shocked when assistants fixed my hair, and the next thing I knew they told me I was going on National TV. Boy was I in for a shock. While I faced Deborah Norville, I also heard the other side of the conversation about my people. I found myself right in the middle of a show about Colorado City. As I answered the questions, I wondered how that would help me get my kids. I was not even aware of what I had done.” Flora used Laurene as her anti-FLDS exhibit, which was her plan from the beginning, never telling her anything about her plans or intentions beforehand.
Laurene continues, “Anyway, to make a long story short, I was homeless with three children, living in the middle of a huge hot city. My brother got mad at Flora, and for a while turned away from me. Later, finding out what she was really like, he was sorry for bringing her to me. My other sister in Phoenix was upset because, as I learned later, she hated Flora too. So because I was with Flora, they stayed away.” Likewise, her association with Flora and the custody battle now placed Val into a combative situation with her. Flora was doing far more damage than good, all for her own self-serving purposes.
“Flora seemed to me like a magician,” continued Laurene, “how she worked the media and the legal system. She wouldn’t listen to anything I said. When I told her I wanted to get equal custody, she balked. When I told her I wanted the children to see their dad, she balked. She lorded over me more and more until it was unbearable. Then she got violent, screaming and yelling at me and the kids. She brought reporter after reporter, calling me her ‘project.’ When I objected to anything she was doing, she asked: ‘Do you want custody of your kids or not?’
“Flora boasted to the media and others about her getting me on government housing. But the fact is, I had already begun that process almost an entire year prior, the time period required for qualification, and was therefore able to get a house after three months of living with her. Flora had nothing to do with getting me housing.
“Also, she was hypocritical about these very things that she herself was practicing, blaspheming the FLDS for the same thing. She screamed fraud concerning government assistance in the FLDS, yet claimed to have secured my housing and took me to sign up for food stamps for the children and for cash assistance, after she made me homeless. All the food I had in my upright freezer in Flagstaff even went bad because she left the unit outside in Phoenix, sitting in the sun, unplugged.
“Flora used the children and I to get money to help women and children escape polygamy. She had the boys and I help her collect donations and take them to her house, then she sold most of it on eBay for her own purposes. Her husband broke my windshield when he was angry, and another time my car door was damaged while parked in her driveway. They collected insurance for the damage, but never got my car fixed.
“Meanwhile, I was barely able to survive. She took me to seminars where I repeated my fate in the FLDS. Flora never gave us any money from these fundraisers for women and children escaping polygamy. I finally realized she was using us and exploiting the children for her own gain.
“I became more and more bitter about my people and what had happened to me—what Val did, what [those troubling men] did, how my own sister-wife treated me, how the FLDS failed me. The one or two times I managed to sneak a call to Val, he was so angry he yelled at me and scared me off. Once I told Flora I still loved Val, and she flew off the handle. It became quite frequent for her to come to the house and throw a little tantrum about me as a mother and how I should push the boys to stop wearing their polygamous underwear.
“She hid in the closet and told me to provoke the boys so she could get it on tape. I couldn’t do it, and that made her furious at me. I watched her push my son, Anthony. Standing squarely in front of him, she shoved him backward, over and over, while she yelled, ‘Hit me, hit me,’ each time, trying to provoke him. She would get the boys in her suburban (that says “Polygamy is Abuse”) and talk to them for hours, and would not let me in on those conversations. But the boys always looked sad.
“There is no end to the damage that woman did to my children. I guess I must have been pretty desperate to put up with her. I feared that the custody case might end, so I bucked up and did whatever she asked. And may I add here, I am truly sorry for the harsh words I spoke during that time.
“In the end, I got custody. However, the children and I were not happy without Val. He had been sent away from the FLDS faith also. Now that I had custody, I wanted more freedom. I wanted to visit his house in Cane Beds from the beginning of the court case. Flora told me over and over that she would take me up there after I got custody. But now that the case had ended, she wanted more control over me than ever. She insisted that I was still her project. She told me lies that if I went out of the county, the judge would take custody back. She said the police would come if I let the children talk to Val. She demonized him, while I had forgiven him.
“I had learned about the challenge Val had in bringing my children to see me in Flagstaff. If it had not been for him, I would not have had the opportunity to see them at all during my exile from my people. Some elders wanted to prevent it, using the prophet’s name, but Val and I both knew what the word of God was in the matter. Even though it felt like I did not have my children, they were there for visits because of Val.
“In the fall of 2005, Flora once again tricked me, this time in going to Kingman with her, saying we were going up to visit the Fawns [two FLDS girls whom Flora used to gain media attention in 2004].” But Flora’s true intentions were to get Laurene to participate in the conviction of her own brother-in-law, David Bateman, and sister, Lydia, in a set of trials pursued by Matt Smith, Mohave County Attorney, and Gary Ingles, Mohave County investigator for the police department, in Mohave County Superior Court—the Polygamy Eight Case.
But Laurene would have nothing to do with this. First, Lydia was her sister, and she would not testify against her; second, Laurene had no evidence; and third, Candy Shapley, a former FLDS girl who had married at a young age, spent a month in jail because she refused to testify against her former husband. Because of Laurene’s unwillingness, legal retribution was taken against her that she and her family suffer from to this day.