Before flood, polygamist sisters received eviction notice and offers they refused

First Published      Last Updated Sep 18 2015 10:22 am

Polygamy » A former FLDS member who got permission to move into the house says he now regrets his actions.

Hildale • If Russell Cooke had known who the women were, he says, he wouldn't have evicted them — not on that day in June, anyway.

He would have let Josephine and Naomi Jessop and their eight children stay in the house until they were sure they had another place to go, he says. He could have gone and talked to their father. Maybe Cooke even would have found a way for them to live with his family in the house.

The house sits on Jessop Avenue, after all. Plus, through the plural marriages that intertwine everyone in Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek and home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Cooke could claim Naomi and Josephine Jessop and their sister Della Johnson as relations.

But Josephine and Naomi Jessop hadn't told Cooke anything, he said. He didn't know their names. So, with the help of four Washington County sheriff's deputies, he forced the women and children to leave.

Josephine and Naomi Jessop, Della Johnson and nine of their children died Monday when flash floods overtook two vehicles carrying their respective families in Hildale. A 10th child, Tyson Lucas Black, age 6, remained missing late Thursday and is presumed dead. Three other children survived.

"I am just tore up," Cooke, 43, said Wednesday night as he held a shovel along the bank of a muddy wash, where he was about to dig for Tyson's remains.

"I guarantee you it wouldn't have made a difference," said his older half-brother, Doug Cooke.

Russell Cooke's story of how he came to evict people he considered family is emblematic of how people who no longer follow FLDS leader Warren Jeffs have been pitted against those who are still loyal to him in order to obtain homes. It also articulates how Josephine and Naomi Jessop were living after being isolated from their husband.

Communal living

Cooke's mother was living in the home on Jessop Avenue when he was born, he said. His mother was one of his father's four wives. The Cooke family didn't own the home.

Since Short Creek's founding in the early 20th century, FLDS members have believed in communal living where assets are shared. The home belongs to the United Effort Plan. It's a trust incorporated by FLDS members in 1942 to hold much of the home and land in Short Creek.

Although occupants may not own their homes, they have been expected to care for them as if they did. While Cooke was still in elementary school, he and his brothers helped build additions onto the house, he said.

The Cookes moved to another UEP house when he was 11. He remained loyal to Jeffs until the August 2012.

That's when, Cooke said, Jeffs from prison issued an edict that husbands and wives could not have sex with each other. Cooke and his wife left the church a month later.

Cooke and his wife — he says his only wife — continued to live in Colorado City. Brothers who had left the FLDS earlier encouraged Cooke to claim his birthright and pursue a home from the UEP.

The state of Utah seized the UEP in 2005 over concerns Jeffs was mismanaging it and was putting people at risk of losing their homes. A state judge in Salt Lake City oversees the trust. People who can demonstrate a rightful claim to a UEP home must sign an occupancy agreement and pay $100 a month.

Jeffs has barred the FLDS from signing the agreements and paying the fees, former members have said. Yet many FLDS continue to inhabit the 700 homes in Short Creek, essentially squatting and living in such secrecy that UEP employees don't even know who resides in many of the homes.

In January, Cooke applied with the UEP board to live in his childhood home. He was approved in May.

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