Former Polygamous Sect Member Confronts Past

As a member of an isolated polygamous sect in Arizona, Laurene Jessop says she was sexually abused by her father, who had four wives and 56 children, and mistreated by her husband, who was already married to Laurene's sister.

After enduring a lifetime of desperation, she fled her home in Colorado City, Ariz., a town dominated by the group, called the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

But a year after she left, the 47-year-old returned to confront her past. She felt she had to prove to herself the group no longer had power over her.

As she drove into the city with "Primetime" co-anchor John Quiñones, she said, "It's like coming into a nightmare, another life."

From a very young age, everyone in Colorado City is taught that outsiders are evil. They wear old-fashioned clothes, and they fervently submit to the rules of Warren Jeffs, a man they call "The Prophet."

Young girls are destined to be married off in their teen years to older men, who keep several wives. The girls are expected to bear many children and obey the sect's strict patriarchal rules. The FLDS split from the mainstream Mormon church in 1890 when it disavowed polygamy.

Laurene returned to Colorado City to reconcile with not only the damage caused to her life by polygamy -- but her lost childhood.

A Bad Marriage

As a teen, Laurene was married to an older man chosen by the sect named Val Jessop. He had already married Laurene's sister, so Laurene says she knew him "a bit." But she adds, "I always felt like I was an intruder."

Laurene says Marie was bitterly jealous from day one, and was even present when she and her husband consummated the marriage.

"He invited her into our bed," Laurene said. "She just hugged his back -- hugged him all the way through."

Laurene says Marie soon began mistreating her children. She adds that Val did nothing to stop it, so she began acting out -- and he called the cops.

She was taken to a mental institution in Flagstaff, Ariz., more than 200 miles away. The police were not interested in her side of the story, Laurene said.

When she returned home, she says she still found it impossible to be the perfect servant to her husband's every whim. She was sent to the institution three more times.

"I was trapped. I felt like I had done my very best in trying to live my religion," she said. "I was taught that, the only rights a woman has is to be obedient to her husband."

Laurene was desperate for a way out. Even though she had not lived with her children for some years, she feared abandoning them to the community. But then she met Flora Jessop, a former FLDS member who has devoted her life to helping girls and women escape the sect.

(As a small community with a lot of intermarriage, Colorado City has many people with the surname Jessop, related to one another in some way.)

With Flora's help, Laurene was able to run with her three girls, Jennifer, Valene and Luanne, to a safe home in Phoenix. She eventually won full custody of her five children. The court decided it would be best for them to live away from their father who remained near the polygamous community.

Val told Quiñones he wants the kids back -- and denied he is a polygamist. Even though he has two wives, he says it's "plural marriage."

"I was born Mormon," he said. "I'm not going to go be something else. I'm who I am."

He also admits he wasn't a perfect husband -- but he denies calling the police on Laurene because she disobeyed him. He says she was mentally ill and violent, and questions the authority of a Phoenix court over his family.

Feeling Unprotected

However, Laurene says her wounds from Colorado City run much deeper than her marriage to Val Jessop.

She says her father sexually abused her. It started when she was in puberty, she said.

"There would be several of us girls in the room. And he would come into the house and go around and kiss each one of the girls -- put his hand down your blouse -- say, 'Oh, looks like you're getting bigger, you know -- you're developing, you're coming along very well here,' " she said.

"Then he would go to the next girl and give her a kiss, do the same thing, the next and on around the room."

Laurene and 12 of her sisters reported they'd been molested, she says -- though the abuse stopped short of actual intercourse. In 1983, her father, Jack Cooke, pleaded guilty to sexual assault and went to prison for five years.

"He took my virtue," she said. "And I think he should have got more than five years in prison for what he did."

When her father went to prison, the sect reassigned Laurene's family to her uncle. When Laurene visited him and her mother, they gave her a chilly reception. When she asked why they didn't support her, they stonewalled.

Justifying His Abuse

Quiñones spoke to Jack Cooke about his daughter's pain. At the time, the 76-year-old had not seen his daughter for 22 years, but talked to Quiñones knowing she was in a nearby room, listening in.

He said at the time he didn't view his fondling of his daughters as abuse. It wasn't sexual, he said, claiming it was "on the same premise as our religion."

"I had the idea that I was the big boss," he said. "I believed those children were mine."

He compared his position to a farmer with his animals. But he also said "every intimacy which I had with them, they understood perfectly that if I did anything they didn't like, to tell me and I would not do it."

Laurene denies this. She says he told his daughters they "weren't normal if we didn't like it. And, that all men do that to their daughters."

Cooke continued: "I'd say it was consensual, whatever we were doing. I was not imposing on them."

Forgetting and Forgiving

When Laurene finally confronted Cooke, he greeted her by saying, "Hello. I want to feast my eyes on you, beautiful lady."

She ignored his remark, and instead, asked him several questions she had carefully prepared for the moment. "Can you tell me in your own words what you did to me sexually?" she asked.

He replied, "You know that you're one of those few, that I don't remember hardly touching at all."

When she told him the explicit details, he responded, "I did?" But he didn't challenge her. "I won't call you a liar," he said.

She continued: "I was a very tender age. I remember every smell. I remember every detail of it." The memories of her fear came back to her. "We weren't safe at home. We weren't safe at school. We weren't safe anywhere," she said.

Cook replied: "All I can say right now -- with these things happening to you -- all I can say is I'm sorry."

Laurene says she will forgive her father. The pain seems to be fading with time.

A year ago, she said, she put the pictures of her past in the closet. She couldn't look at them. But recently, she returned to them, she said, and thought, "it's a different life. It's a different part of me."

"It's just strange to think that I actually lived like that now," she said.

Sect Weakening?

Meanwhile, the sect's iron grip on Colorado City may be beginning to loosen. A year ago, the county attorney sent special investigator Gary Engels there in search of criminal activity.

He recently got eight men to surrender to face allegations they married underage girls. (All have pleaded not guilty.) He now has a warrant for the arrest of the sect leader, Warren Jeffs, on charges of forcing underage girls to marry.

But he says he doesn't know where Jeffs is right now. "He travels with bodyguards and I'm sure they're probably armed. And, what their directive is -- and how they'll protect him, we don't know," Engels said.

Jeffs is believed to have fled his walled compound in the center of Colorado City.

His followers are building new outposts in the wilderness of Colorado, and a fortress-like community, complete with an imposing temple in remote west Texas. He could be in those places or hiding out in other polygamist enclaves in Canada and Mexico.

The following are organizations that help women looking to flee polygamy.