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Anti-polygamy group airs film and concerns

ST. GEORGE — There are dozens of Elizabeth Smarts — young girls being held against their will by men who want the teens to become plural wives — living in Washington County, an anti-polygamist activist said Tuesday.

"Elizabeth Smart had the entire country looking for her. This same story is happening on a daily basis in Washington County and nobody seems to care," said Bob Curran, local director of an organization called "Help the Child Brides," an affiliate of a national campaign, "The Polygamy Justice Project," based in Los Angeles.

Curran's Web site, helpthechildbrides.com, enlists the public's help in finding a young Ruby Jessop, who allegedly fled a polygamous marriage to a man many times her age and later was forced to return. Jessop, says Curran, has not been heard from since she was taken back to the twin polygamist communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

"Where is Ruby? Nobody seems to know. She most likely is being held in isolation and almost certainly is being forced to act as plural wife against her will," Curran said to a capacity crowd of about 80 people gathered at the Washington County library to hear his pleas and watch a Canadian documentary about polygamy.

Most residents of Hildale and Colorado City, located about a half-hour's drive from St. George, are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A basic tenet of the religion is polygamy, which is practiced by the church's nearly 10,000 members. Polygamy was banned in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1800s.

Tuesday's film screening, which was repeated later in the afternoon, attracted those who were curious about the FLDS Church and those who left the faith. The documentary, produced by the Canadian Broadcast Corp. for a program called "the fifth estate," chronicled the lives of three people who fled their polygamous lifestyles.

Lenore Holm, one of the three featured on the film, attended the meeting and answered questions from a curious audience.

"The whole reason I wanted to do this today was for people's hearts to join together and help with this problem," said Holm, who is waging a legal battle against the FLDS Church over ownership of the home she and her husband built on church land before the two fell out of favor with its leaders.

"It (the FLDS Church) is a form of organized crime, like the Mafia," said Holm, who added she was shunned and excommunicated from the FLDS Church after refusing to let her 16-year-old daughter marry a 39-year-old man. "There are a lot of slaves, a lot of women and children."

An unofficial spokesman for the FLDS Church, Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, said Holm's charges are unfounded.

"I just have to say they're misinformed," Barlow said on Tuesday evening. "There are hundreds of young people enjoying life out here in every way. Force is just not a part of our religion. I don't want to get into a quarrel with these people."

Pam Black said early in her FLDS marriage she often prayed and hoped her husband would be given a second wife.

"Wives are called blessings," said Black. "The tremendous stress of being a first wife is pretty hellish. I thought I wasn't worthy, that he wasn't worthy, for us to have a second wife."

Black eventually left the church and her husband, and says she wants to help other women leave the polygamous society.

"It's always been women don't think or do for themselves," she said. "There is no time to think. You're not allowed to have your own checking or bank account, either."

Black and other activists who attended Tuesday's meeting said they are hoping to find a house that can be used as a retreat or safe house for those wanting to leave polygamy.

Ben Bistline, a former member of the FLDS Church and an outspoken critic of its doctrines, said there are young people living in the polygamous towns who want to leave polygamy.

"But you can't go to Colorado City and just go up and tell them you have a safe house," said Bistline, who speculated half of the town's teenagers would leave if given the opportunity.

One woman, who said she recently fled Centennial Park, another nearby polygamist community, said leaving isn't that simple.

"So many of the kids out there have a hard time fitting in anywhere. It's very backward," said the young woman, who did not want to reveal her name to a Deseret News reporter.

"We have to keep the social pressure on. Over time there's got to be a shift in thinking."

Another woman, who also didn't want to be identified, said she had her bags packed by the time she was 12 years old and was just waiting for a ride out of town.

"I knew my whole life I wanted to move out," she said, in a quivering voice "These kids need to know they have rights, then they can be responsible for their actions. We need to keep these women out there asking questions. You don't know how many women think "it's only me," and that everybody else has a smile on."

Near the end of the nearly three-hour meeting, Curran railed on local law enforcement, child welfare services, local school district officials and the Washington County attorney, Eric Ludlow, for what he called their "apathy."

"Has Ludlow ever in his whole term prosecuted a polygamist or child abuse case out there?" said Curran, who also scoffed at Ludlow's recent appointment by Gov. Mike Leavitt to serve as a judge in the 5th District Court. "I don't think so. He's done nothing. Did he not know there were violations of the law out there?"

"I've never met this guy or heard of his group. He's never contacted my office," said Ludlow. "I can only tell these people to step up and get us a case. Give us a case we can prosecute. I can understand their frustration. These are not easy cases. But the number one priority in being able to prosecute a case is that you have to have witnesses, not hearsay. And we don't have that."


E-MAIL: nperkins@infowest.com