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Idaho seizes boys from Utah polygamous sect

Published August 28, 2014 1:23 pm
FLDS • Caretaker is charged with three misdemeanor counts of child abuse.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pocatello, Idaho • If the boy didn't wake at 6 a.m., he wouldn't be allowed to eat breakfast.

When a sheriff's detective asked what was usually served in the mornings, the boy didn't know. He hadn't been up that early in a while.

The breakfast policy was just one of the rules the boy — apparently in his early teens — had to follow after running afoul of leaders of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Last month, police and child welfare agents removed the boy and eight others from a home outside Pocatello where they had been living with caretaker Nathan C. Jessop, now charged with three misdemeanor counts of child abuse.

As discipline, Jessop struck boys with a board or broom or sent them outside into cold weather without coats, the children told investigators. One boy was confined to a furnace room for up to two days, where he was provided meals but could leave only to use the bathroom, a Bannock County sheriff's report said.

The boys, whose ages appear to range between 12 and 17, also described being given limited access to food and isolated from their parents as they raised money by building and selling furniture, mowing neighbors' lawns and doing other odd jobs.

Jessop and the boys are all former or current members of the FLDS and had been sent on "repentance missions" by church leader Warren Jeffs or his brother Lyle, according to the sheriff's report, provided to The Tribune last week by the Bannock County Prosecuting Attorney.

The names of the children, who were taken into state custody, were redacted from the 70-page report, which offers rare insight into the lives of people loyal to Warren Jeffs and how they deal with children they consider wayward.

Before an Aug. 11 custody hearing in Pocatello, a Tribune reporter in the courthouse lobby heard lawyers tell the mothers of four boys that their cases were being dismissed and their sons would be able to go home with them.

When 6th District Magistrate Judge Bryan Murray learned the journalist had also attended the hearing, Murray ordered him not to report on what was said or on the rulings in the cases. An attorney for The Tribune has asked Murray to reconsider the ban, pointing out there were no signs limiting who could enter, other people who were not parties in the case also were in the courtroom, and no one spoke when the judge asked whether there were objections to anyone present.

Citing state policy, an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesman declined to say whether the boys remain in state custody.

Raising questions • Idaho child advocates, meanwhile, are critical of the apparent return of at least some of the children to their families, questioning whether potential expenses played a role.

The Health and Welfare department has been more reluctant to open child protection cases and quicker to close them due to cost concerns and layoffs, said attorney Bradley Willis, who represents children in Bannock County through the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

"I know the department was concerned about the cost of keeping [eight] boys in foster care," said Willis, who did not disclose what was said in court or legal motions. He said the state also appeared concerned that FLDS parents would claim they were being discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

"They were afraid of what happened down in Texas," Willis said, referring to the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch, where Texas authorities removed more than 400 FLDS children but eventually returned them.

"This was one of the more hands-off approaches that the department has had when the safety and well-being of children has been brought before the court," Willis said of the Idaho FLDS cases.

Former Bannock County Sheriff Bill Lynn, who now works with that county's program for neglected and abused children, has written to the parties in the custody case, saying, "At least eight young boys will have been hurt by the decisions made."

The Tribune obtained a copy of the letter.

Some officials, Lynn wrote, "lost their vision in regards to these kids and were swayed by a fear of the costs involved and the effort and time that would have been necessary to insure that these boys had a chance at a decent future."

The boys deserved a hearing, Lynn wrote, "and a chance to escape the tyranny of an evil prophet who will add their names to his long list of Lost Boys that, along with a little help from Idaho, will grow and grow and grow."

The department declined to answer questions from The Tribune but issued a statement Wednesday.

"Religious beliefs and practices are not a basis for child welfare intervention," the statement read. "There has to be substantiated evidence of abuse or neglect that affects a child's well-being and safety."

The caretaker •One boy who had been in Jessop's Pocatello home escaped this summer, the sheriff's report said, and contacted Holding Out Help, a Utah-based group that assists people leaving polygamous households. The boys told investigators that young men who have left the FLDS often tell others how to reach the group.

Holding Out Help alerted the FBI. The Bannock County Sheriff's Office first learned of the home on July 8, when an FBI agent called, Bannock County Sheriff's Lt. Toni Vollmer wrote.

Vollmer and child welfare investigators used information from the escaped boy to obtain a July 10 order from Judge Murray to remove the others, she wrote.

One of the boys living with Jessop was his son, now 16, according to documents. Jessop said three of the boys were his stepsons and three others were his nephews.

Jessop has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor counts and is scheduled to appear in 6th District Court in Bannock County on Thursday. His attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

Two charges stem from his alleged failure to report that two boys had run away — the boy who contacted Holding Out Help and one of Jessop's sons. The third count stems from the allegation that a boy was confined in the furnace room.

Vollmer said no other abuse charges have been filed because police and prosecutors could not prove the severity of the alleged physical discipline or when it occurred.

Some of the boys said they had lived with Jessop for two years, in homes in Wyoming and Idaho.

Jessop, 47, is the son of Merrill Jessop, who was the presiding bishop of the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Merrill Jessop is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Texas for officiating the marriage of his then-12-year-old daughter to Warren Jeffs.

"Nate" Jessop, as he was known at the Pocatello home, was suspected of having sex with an underage girl he took as a wife, according to Texas documents, but charges were never filed.

Two of the boys said Jessop was on a repentance mission, where people deemed unworthy to be in what Warren Jeffs and Lyle Jeffs call the United Order are sent away until the leaders say they can return.

Life as an FLDS kid • Jessop told Idaho investigators the boys had been disobedient and in trouble with the law before their parents sent them to him to get straightened out. He said he was asked to take care of the boys in the fall of 2012.

In October or November 2012, he and the boys lived near Big Piney, Wyo. They were joined by Tammy Jessop, who told investigators she was a spiritual wife of Jessop's father and a former public school teacher.

Tammy Jessop, now 56, said it was her job to teach the boys from a home school curriculum and to prepare their meals.

The group moved to Pocatello in March 2013, the sheriff's report said, where Jessop and boys older than 12 lived in one home. At that time, Tammy Jessop, the younger boys and a now-16-year-old girl and a now-20-year-old woman lived in another home.

Jessop and the older boys moved to Downey, Idaho, in June 2013, then returned to Pocatello in December.

Some boys told investigators they didn't know why they were sent to live with Jessop; others didn't say why.

"I asked [name redacted] who makes that decision," Vollmer wrote in the report, "and he said, 'Warren Jeffs.' I asked [him] if he knew the reason why. [He] did not know why the decision was made to send him here."

One boy said he had been exiled from Short Creek, the collective name for Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., for sending text messages to a girl. The towns are the home of the FLDS.

Jessop set up a wood shop and taught the boys to make furniture. The boys told police they made bookshelves and sold them in Pocatello, and made shelves, dressers and nightstands that were shipped to Short Creek.

FLDS businesses have been cited in the past for using children as workers. The U.S. Department of Labor is currently investigating Paragon Contractors Corp., a business linked to the FLDS, for its alleged use of children as unpaid labor.

Vollmer, in an interview, said it appears the boys had stopped making furniture. "They had gotten to the point where they had been fairly rebellious about it," she said.

Life in Pocatello • Jessop stopped using a board or broom for discipline after one boy bought a cellphone and threatened to call police if Jessop did it again, the boys said. Other details provided by the boys in the report include:

• Boys who woke in time for breakfast could expect just a bowl of oatmeal. Lunch and dinner were provided, but Jessop kept the pantry locked so the boys couldn't eat between meals. Warren Jeffs had banned drinking milk and eating corn. The boys were sneaking to Pocatello to buy fast food.

• To buy the extra food and cellphones, the boys did odd jobs. The money they earned making furniture was placed into a fund to pay for house expenses.

• Lyle Jeffs sent Jessop $5,000 a month to pay expenses, a 17-year-old boy told investigators.

• The boys slept on the floor or on mattresses with blankets but no sheets.

• The boys said they were not allowed to watch television or movies in the home. One boy said Jessop smashed his iPod because he was listening to the radio. The boys went to a McDonald's restaurant to use the free wireless Internet connection with their phones.

• Boys said they had not seen their parents since they were sent away and some had not spoken to them on a telephone in 10 or 11 months.

• Jessop was gone for hours or an entire day without telling the boys he was leaving. When police arrived at the Pocatello home last month, no adults were there. Jessop was shopping in Logan, Utah.

Jessop admitted he had physically disciplined all the boys, according to the sheriff's report. Vollmer wrote, "Nate advised that all the boys have been hard to handle and have not learned obedience."

Tammy Jessop stopped the home schooling when the summer started, and said she started leaving the boys' home after breakfast because the boys had become so rowdy. She would prepare lunch and dinner at her home, she said, and then bring the meals to the boys.

Vollmer, in an interview, said it appears Tammy Jessop taught the boys until they were old enough to pursue a GED diploma. Vollmer said a couple of the older boys told her they were studying for GED tests.

A plea to go home • Authorities in Bannock County consulted FBI agents who previously had investigated the FLDS and spoke with Tonia Tewell, who leads Holding Out Help.

Tewell explained that FLDS leaders consider children to be property of the priesthood, not their parents, the report said.

"Tonia advised that if the boys go back to their parents, they will be turned back over to the church leaders," Vollmer wrote.

One of the FBI agents who assisted declined to comment last week.

The boys interviewed by investigators all said they wanted to go live with their parents or with Holding Out Help. None wanted to return to Jessop.

In the living room of the Pocatello home, law enforcement officers found folding chairs facing a pulpit. Behind the pulpit was a large photo of Warren Jeffs. He is in Texas serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two girls who he took as polygamous wives.

One boy said he had been writing to Warren Jeffs in prison, asking to be allowed to return from his repentance mission. Some of the boys wanted to leave the FLDS faith.

Vollmer wrote in her report that one boy repeatedly said he wanted to be an apostate, presumably so he could be expelled from the FLDS.

At least some of the boys and parents saw each other for the first time in months or years on July 15, at a court hearing in Pocatello to determine where to temporarily place the boys. Vollmer's report said one mother did not recognize her son when she saw him.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

 

 



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