With God On Their Side

The decision to abruptly remove 437 children from a fundamentalist Mormon compound in Eldorado sparked the largest custody battle in U.S. history. But now that the last child’s case has been settled and all the kids are back home, a question still lingers: What really happened on the Yearning for Zion Ranch?
With God On Their Side
Photograph by Sarah Wilson

UPDATEIn July 2010, the Utah Supreme Court overturned Warren Jeffs’ two convictions on charges of rape as an accomplice, citing faulty jury instructions. In November 2010, Jeffs was extradited to Texas to face charges that allegedly occurred on the YFZ ranch, and in September 2011, he was found guilty of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault. A second trial, for bigamy, is scheduled for October 3, 2011.September 7, 2011

August 6, 2009, seemed to be a day like any other on the Yearning for Zion Ranch. Recent rains had doused the flower beds, vegetable garden, and fruit orchard, and rosy-cheeked women in full-length, pastel-colored dresses were crouched on their hands and knees, pulling out weeds and setting them in little piles. In the dairy, a slight young woman listened to hymns as she stirred cheese in a large metal vat. The carpentry shop was abuzz with men in long-sleeved collared shirts sawing wood to make cabinets, chairs, and cradles. Boys bounced down winding gravel roads in trucks and on heavy machinery. It was a pastoral scene of industriousness like those you might see in Hildale, Utah; or Colorado City, Arizona; or Pringle, South Dakota; or any of the other towns where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamous Mormon sect with about 10,000 members, had established religious communities.

Less apparent in the tranquil setting was a powerful undercurrent of joy: Merrianne Jessop had arrived the night before. There was no “Welcome Home” banner, no party; such theatrics would have been out of character for these humble, quiet people. But the feeling was there all the same. “Right now there seems to be a little bit of relief in the air,” said Willie Jessop, the unofficial FLDS spokesman (Jessop is a common surname in the FLDS), as he drove me around the 1,700-acre spread outside Eldorado. Merrianne, a spunky fifteen-year-old with red hair, was happy to be back with her family on the ranch. She was quick to joke, rolling her eyes every now and then for laughs, tossing her head as a light West Texas breeze ruffled her lavender prairie-style dress.

The past year had been an ordeal. In the spring of 2008, the ranch was raided, and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had removed 437 children, including Merrianne, after a local domestic abuse hotline received a call from someone claiming to be a sixteen-year-old FLDS member. The caller’s report of underage marriage and sexual abuse triggered a massive investigation that led to an epic child custody battle, the largest in U.S. history. The Third Court of Appeals ruled that the removal of the children had been unwarranted, and a chastened DFPS returned the kids to the ranch, though the department continued to investigate the cases. Merrianne’s was the last to be settled.

Her mother, Barbara Jessop, and her new court-appointed guardian, Naomi Carlisle, who is also an FLDS member, seemed giddy as they looked at her. All three of them were confident that the Lord was on their side and that the state had had no right to intervene, never mind the mountains of evidence obtained during the investigation, some of which plainly showed that the FLDS had married young teenage girls to much older men. Never mind that the church’s prophet, Warren Steed Jeffs, was himself in prison for being an accomplice to the rape of a fourteen-year-old. Never mind that criminal charges, including sexual assault and bigamy, were still being brought against twelve men from the ranch. When asked about the upcoming trials, which start on October 26, Merrianne shrugged. “The truth will prevail,” she said.

Anyone who has followed this case from the beginning might easily find cause to doubt that statement. In the eighteen months since the children were first removed from the ranch, so many conflicting reports have been presented that even close observers have had trouble following the thread. First, there was the stunning revelation, just days after the raid, that the initial call to the abuse hotline had been a hoax, phoned in by a woman in Colorado with a history of making false reports. Then the DFPS was forced to admit that its original statement that more than half the teenage girls on the ranch were pregnant and that a suspicious number of children had broken bones was wrong; apparently the department had been categorizing adult mothers as underage, and the number of broken bones was about average for a group of four hundred children. The sympathies of the public, which had initially tended to fall with the state, quickly swung to the polygamists, who claimed they had been attacked merely for being different. “You think you’re persecuted?” Larry King asked Willie Jessop during a May 22, 2008, interview. “Larry, it is our history,” Jessop told him. The FLDS had been vindicated, and many people were left with the impression that an overzealous DFPS had screwed up.

But that was certainly not the story told by DFPS workers. They pored over materials taken from the ranch—photographs, marriage certificates, census logs, diaries—and were convinced that in some cases, action needed to be taken. In Merrianne’s case, a marriage record indicated that her father, Fredrick Merril Jessop, who essentially ran the ranch operations, had performed a marriage between Merrianne and Jeffs at the YFZ Ranch in July 2006, when Merrianne was twelve years old and Jeffs was fifty. The girl would later tell caseworkers that this couldn’t have been a crime because “Heavenly Father is the one that tells Warren when a girl is ready to get married … He is only following the word of Heavenly Father.”

This antagonism between the law of the land and the word of God is an old and fierce struggle, particularly in the United States, which was founded on the principle of religious freedom. The FLDS, in fact, is in some ways a product of this conflict. In 1878, in a landmark case involving the Church of Jesus Christ of

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