Former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop grateful for freedom
Recalls escape with 8 kids from husband, FLDS ranch
SAN ANGELO, Texas When Carolyn Jessop escaped from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints in April 2003, she had no idea what the future would hold for her and her eight children.

"Fleeing the FLDS was like jumping off a cliff; I had no idea where I would land," Jessop wrote in the epilogue of her first book, "Escape."

It was a decision she never regretted.

"A lot of times you do things you would not normally do," she said in a recent interview, "but when your children are involved, you just do them."

The strength Jessop used to escape from the FLDS compound in Colorado City, Ariz., where she lived with her husband, Merril Jessop, her eight children, five sister wives, and dozens of stepchildren, also allowed her to thrive in the outside world.

The transition to life outside the FLDS was not an easy one, and she started it with her eight children in a shelter.

In "Escape," Carolyn describes attempts by her husband to turn her children against her during his early custody visitations.

Before Warren Jeffs' arrest in 2006, Merril Jessop, now in his late 70s, had risen to become one of the sect's most powerful leaders.

A year ago in Tom Green County Court, he was ordered to pay $148,000 in child support arrears to Carolyn Jessop and $2,450 per month in support of his children.

Although Carolyn Jessop left the sect more than eight years ago, the 2008 raid of the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado and the trials that have ensued have brought her back into confrontation with the sect.

She has testified in trials following the raid against defendants charged with sexual abuse of children.Her most recent testimony, against FLDS "prophet" and leader Warren Jeffs, helped to bring about a verdict that she did not think possible.

Warren Jeffs was "evil, truly evil," Jessop said. "The definition of evil is to intentionally inflict harm on another human being. He's very methodical. He's brilliant. But he's intent on hurting others. He knows what he is doing."

Early in his rise to power as the sect's leader, Jeffs banned the color red, saying that it was "reserved for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

He preached that when Jesus Christ returns, he'll do so in a red robe, and that wearing that color before the second coming is unholy, Jessop wrote in "Escape."

Jeff's banishment of the color red was the reason several female witnesses have worn red during this month's testimony against him, as a symbol of their freedom.

Soon after Jeff's rise to power, Jessop wrote that she felt a "new extremism taking root in the community that felt more radical than anything we'd known in the past."

Although members of the community feared changes and sensed danger, like her, they kept quiet, she wrote in "Escape."

After the 2008 raid in Eldorado, Jessop said, television interviews of FLDS women infuriated her.

While all of them said they were not aware of any underage marriages, Jessop said that she knew several of their own daughters were married young.

"They were all copying the way Warren talked," she said. "Apparently, that changed after I left I heard people I knew talking, and literally that was not their voice."

Jessop said that although all the women claimed they were "free to leave," it was "such an atrocious lie."

In her second book, "Triumph," Jessop wrote about her part in testifying for the state of Texas in the months following the raid, her interviews with the media, and most vividly, how the pictures on television affected her children.

In the days following the raid, Jessop was most concerned for her oldest daughter Betty, who returned to the FLDS two days after she turned 18.

Her older children, 13 through 20 at the time of the raid, "were pleased that their half-siblings might get some protection, but also concerned about how they'd react to being suddenly removed from the only life they'd ever known," Jessop wrote in "Triumph."

Her younger children, then 6 and 10, were mostly oblivious to what was happening, she wrote, "because they had so little memory of their past."

Still, as her own children watched their half-siblings on television "going into the system" in April 2008, Jessop said they thanked her for getting them out.

Jessop wrote in "Triumph" that she realized that if she hadn't escaped, she "could have easily been one of the distraught FLDS mothers on TV."

Jessop appreciates the freedoms she has outside of the FLDS.

While speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2008, she told the senators that she was 35 before she realized that the rights guaranteed to all Americans by the U.S. Constitution also applied to her.

After the raid, ultimately, the FLDS children were failed, Jessop said. "The kids want help, and after a few weeks in protective care, they let down their guard," she said.

She said that she was surprised at how fast some of the kids made significant gains.

They were exposed to many things they had never seen before: dogs, crayons, toys, play. "They were allowed to sleep," Jessop said.

At the YFZ Ranch, kids get about six hours of sleep a night, when many are at an age where they need 12.

While the media often portrays the men who perpetuate the crimes in the FLDS, Jessop said the women are part of the sex crimes as well. "They don't believe for a minute that what they were doing was OK," Jessop said.

"The culture is perpetuated by the women," she said, which is a big reason she chose to leave the FLDS. "I heard the indoctrination over and over by my grandmother and my mother," she said, "I could not sell (my children) out like my grandmother and mother sold me out."

Jessop's mother left the FLDS days before Carolyn Jessop left in 2003.

Listening to evidence at the trial, Jessop said she was shocked to hear some of the things that women she once considered friends took part in.

Sadly, she said, "Cult dogma overrules."While Jessop says that she is not part of any organized religion, she has a belief in God. "If one thing had gone wrong," she said, "I would have never made it out."

She credits everything that happened to her during and after her escape to a higher power.

"There had to be a reason I made it out," she said. "There had to be a reason that I was the first (FLDS) woman who got to keep custody of my children."

As a former member of the FLDS, Jessop tries to teach her children to value the freedoms they have.

"Thank God for Texas," Jessop said, "and the work that the Rangers have done."

"More work has been done in the last three years in Texas than in the last 60 years in Utah and Arizona," she said. "Texas has put a lot of resources into this."

Jessop said the raid and ensuing trials have been "the biggest pushback society has given the FLDS for a very long time."

"Texas has sent a message," she said: "If you live in our state, you have to live by our laws."
Originally published August 22, 2011