Forced Into Polygamy in Public

Will witnesses intervene when they think a girl is being forced into polygamy?

July 27, 2010, 12:13 PM

July 27, 2010— -- Colorado City, Ariz., home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, seems like a town stuck in the 19th century. Women wear old-fashioned clothing and sport elaborately braided hairstyles, and the practice of polygamy -- having more than one spouse at one time -- is not uncommon.

The FLDS, which has been renounced by the Mormon Church for its practice of polygamy, has been accused of arranging marriages between underage girls and much older men who already have multiple wives. Young women have spoken out about allegedly being forced into marriage when they were as young as 14, and wishing they'd had help escaping their fates.

So how would people react if they thought they were seeing a young girl being forced into a polygamous marriage against her will?

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"What Would You Do?" headed west to see how people would respond when faced with the chance to save a young girl from a forced polygamous marriage. A few hours' drive from Colorado City, we set up hidden cameras at a family restaurant in Las Vegas called Hash House a Go-Go, just minutes from the strip, and hired actors to portray a polygamist family.

There was Frank, a man in his 60s, his wife, Sherry, the "head wife" of the family, and "sister wives" Laura and Kathy. There was another young woman as well, "Susan."

The actress playing Susan was actually 20 years old. But in our scenario, she was pretending to be a 15-year-old girl about to become Frank's very reluctant fourth wife.

As the family paraded into the restaurant, the heads of unsuspecting diners turned immediately. Not only did the family's fundamentalist attire attract attention, but Susan was crying as the family sat down to order food.

Restaurant patrons could hear her say, "I'm not ready to be married. I'm only 15."

The head wife, "Mother Sherry," told Susan that she should feel blessed. The other sister wives agreed, and reassured Susan that Frank was a good husband. But their words only upset Susan more. Then Frank took a commanding stance, telling Susan to stop crying and saying that she needed to be obedient. Susan only became more distraught.

Some People Did Nothing to Help

So what did people do? Many stared at the family, slack-jawed, while the young bride-to-be wept and pleaded with Frank and the other wives to let her wait a few years. One couple seated at the table behind Susan asked to be moved to the opposite end of the restaurant. And although clearly disturbed by what they were seeing, many others avoided any attempt to help the young bride-to-be.

Later, "What Would You Do?" anchor John Quiñones asked them why they didn't step up.

"It's illegal," he pointed out to one woman. "Couldn't you call 911?"

"To them, it's not illegal," she responded. "We may not agree with it, but I don't know that we're in any position to change it."

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. And, in Nevada, the legal age for marriage with parental consent is 16.

Witnessing this kind of reaction distressed Elissa Wall, an escaped member of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, who was with us while we were filming the scenario and guiding how we directed the actors.

At the age of 14, Wall said she was forced into marriage against her will by the leader of the FLDS community, Warren Jeffs. After she escaped the sect, it was her testimony that helped put Jeffs behind bars on two counts of rape as an accomplice in 2007.

In July 2010, the Utah Supreme Court overturned the convictions, ruling that the original trial judge made a mistake while giving instructions to the jury.

Wall -- who wrote a book about her experience called "Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs" -- still wishes someone had intervened to stop her forced marriage, and she wants people to know that there are windows of opportunity in which it's possible to save a child bride.

So as she watched the scenario play out from a nearby control room, she was relieved to see that some people did react -- albeit covertly. One couple took their concerns to the manager.

"I don't care what state you're in, that's against the law," said James Lupperger, a visitor to the area. "She's being held against her will. In New Jersey, I'd slam that guy's face in."

Another man quietly took camera phone pictures of Susan, and told us he was planning to hand the photos to the cops.

But by late afternoon on the first day of filming, no one had approached the polygamous family directly or even tried to help the young girl when she was left all alone at the table. Finally, Toni Desiderio entered the scene.

Some People Called the Police

Desiderio had her eye on the family from the minute they sat down. She shot them piercing looks as she overheard Susan's tearful pleas. Eventually, the husband paid the bill and left the restaurant while the other wives went to the restroom, leaving Susan alone.

Seeing her opportunity, Desiderio called out, "Do you need help, sweetheart? Susan, do you need help?"

Hearing that Susan was only 15, Desiderio summoned someone to call the police and then led the girl by the hand to the back of the restaurant.

On the second day of filming, we saw even more courageous reactions. Although Judy and Sam Basile were having a business lunch, they were more concerned with the business of the reluctant child bride-to-be.

It didn't take long for Judy Basile to step up. And she was the first person to do so when the family was still there. She leaned over Susan's shoulder and whispered, "What can I help you with? What can I do for you? Come with me."

She then lead Susan out of the restaurant, holding her in her arms the whole time.

Diner Renee Wood also took action. The minute she heard Frank snarl at Susan, "I will teach you to be submissive, to obey and be a good wife," Wood sprung into action.

In the blink of an eye, she had her arm around Susan.

"Do you want to come home with me? Come now. I have a home. I have a room for you," she told the girl.

But before Wood could remove Susan from the restaurant, a human tug of war broke out, with Susan caught between Wood and the head wife.

Wood held her own despite being outnumbered by the four sister wives and angry husband.

"You're a good person, there's a better faith out there," she told Susan. "You're going to be protected."

Former FLDS Wife Moved to Tears

Then, in a burst of adrenaline, she elbowed her way through the wives to the front of the restaurant, clutching Susan closely while her co-worker, Shannon Brown, called police.

As it turned out, Wood is the former executive director of a domestic violence shelter in Utah. She not only had experience in dealing with abuse but was familiar with the plight of young girls in polygamous communities.

Watching the scene unfold, former child bride Elissa Wall was deeply moved. Contemplating how her own life might have been different if a stranger had stood up for her, she said, "It brought me to tears because I put myself in that situation, and I thought, 'You know, if my mother could have done that ... that would have changed everything.'"

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