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May 5th, 2008
03:18 PM ET

FLDS polygamists: an extraordinary family tree

Susan Roesgen
CNN Correspondent

In the secretive, illegal world of American polygamy, life has been good to 67-year-old Wendell Loy Nielsen of El Dorado, Texas.

By his own account, Nielsen has 21 wives, and 36 children.

His oldest wife is 13 years older than he is, and his youngest wife is 43 years younger - she's just 24. His oldest child is 21 years old, and his youngest is a six-month-old baby.

That's one of the longer, single-family geneaologies we uncovered in the "Bishop's List" - a series of documents listing the age, marital status, children and addresses of members of the FLDS's Yearning for Zion ranch in El Dorado.

 The list indicates five of the wives are 16 years old - that's underage by Texas law. If those girls are also mothers, or even if they're not, but their marriages have been consummated, they could be considered victims of statutory rape under Texas law.

The "bishop" in charge of families keeps the list to keep track of members, and make sure there's enough housing and food. That's what Carolyn Jessop told us. She's a former polygamist wife who wrote the bestseller, ESCAPE.

And the bishop, she says, is her ex-husband, Merril Jessop.

Jessop is running the ranch while its self-proclaimed prophet is on suicide watch in prison for his role in forcing a 13-year-old girl to marry her 17-year-old first cousin.

This list of names was found among nearly 1000 boxes of paperwork taken from the ranch by officials investigating child abuse charges against some of the sect members.

Last week, attorneys for the sect argued against a court review of the documents, claiming the documents should remain private under First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association. Judge Barbara Walther disagreed, saying the documents must be examined to try to find possible medical records of the sect children.

The Bishop's List also reveals other details. Most of the documents list the members' address as "R 17." That's shorthand for the Yearning for Zion Ranch. But documents indicate two wives and an infant live in a "house of hiding." Investigators have not revealed where or what kind of house that might be. More importantly - what or whom are they "hiding" from?

Some sect members have refused to tell investigators - or said they don't know - how old they are.

Yet the documents in the Bishop's List seem to suggest that sect members do know their ages, and the ages of their children. Again in the Johnson family record, one wife is listed as being "almost 28" while another is listed as being "almost 22."

The ages of the wives and their children are critical to investigators, who believe that underage girls were routinely married to - and forced to have sex with - older men.

Believe it or not, this is still just a "custody" case. No criminal charges have been filed - against anybody. And the parents of the 463 children taken into state custody want them back.

The next court hearing is scheduled for later this month.

Editor's note: To read an excerpt from ESCAPE, click here.


Filed under: FLDS update • Polygamy • Susan Roesgen
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Helen Tarr Patterson

    I have two grandaughters ages 13 &15 and I wouldn't want them to marry before they had a chance to see lifes choices, however I would be even more disappointed to see them make up wild stories and embellish the truth to ridicule people who have a different culture. At least the update on the story has changed the wording about Warren Jeffs "role" in the marriage of the 13 yr old to her 19 yr old cousin. Why not clarify that to the truth which is public record in Washington County, Utah. His role, for which he is serving time, is he gave counciling to the young couple instead of granting divorce. He did not arrange the marriage, He told them to be kind to one another, to work alongside one another and they would grow to love one another. He told them not to worry about the sexual part, that it would come when they had grown to love one another. He told the young man to wait and let her come to him. After working a twelve hour day, a young man might not be able to resist his wife, and that is what happened.
    See came to him and afterward was angrey because it wasn't what she expected it to be. So she ran away and became pregnant by another man outside the sect. She was paid well to testify against
    Jeffs but became angry and gave up they took what they got from the trial to press charges against her former "husband." She was granted a divorce after having another man"s child.
    This isn't about "protecting the children" It's about RICO and the government seizing property. If it was about children , the government would be going into the gettos where drugs, prostitution, and child abuse are rampant. Can we really say we have to take the FLDS children away from their mothers to save them from growing up in a bad enviroment, when they are nowhere near being as endangered as the intercity children? The children which were taken were never taught violence and had never seen a gun. The food they ate was healthier than the junk most kids eat. They belonged to a group who worked together for the good of the whole, not gangs. I don't want to advocate the FLDS, but overall they are no worse than a lot of other communities where children live and grow. The biggest difference in the picture is not child endangerment, but assets.

    May 6, 2008 at 11:06 am |
  2. Aaron

    This has already been going on to long. The authorities already know whats going on. I think that in the end there place of woreship should be shut down. This looks bad for everyone that lives in the U.S.. It's sick so sick that i don't want to hear about it anymore. Girls raised to obey the men, beatin, raped and all before they become adults, there has to be some effects from no contact to the outside. And also not knowing that how they are being treated is wrong and shouldn't happen to anyone. And I don't understand how they can say they are finding out how old the girls are truthfully all the ages on the paperwork is most likely false. Whats going to happen to Mr. Jeffs is he is going to end up in hell for all the pain and suffering he has caused these kids. All Polygamy should be abolished and the leaders put in jail. Like I said before it's just SICK!!!

    May 6, 2008 at 10:46 am |
  3. Jolene

    Susan:
    Thanks for giving us updates on what's going on with this story. The "house of hiding" has sparked my curiosity. I surely hope these two women and a baby are not actually "hiding". I would hate this to turn into another Fritzl case. Both of these cases are starting to appear eerily similar.

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    May 5, 2008 at 11:44 pm |
  4. An educated farm girl

    "A house of hiding" is quite probably a house where they are hiding because they have fallen out of favor with the "prophet" or the Church. If you think this is not happening in the mainstream Mormon "church" – you are very sadly mistaken.

    The Lost Boys do not just come from FLDS – they also come from Salt Lake City and "mainstream" LDS itself as does polygamy.

    This whole predicament should shake the very ground each and every "temple" is perched upon!

    Congratulations to Carolyn Jessop to have the strength and the guts to leave – most of you have no idea what it took to do that.

    May 5, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
  5. Mike in NYC

    Carol B., Virginia wrote:

    "What they really have is one wife, numerous welfare dependents, and a whole lotta adultery no matter what spin they want to put on it."

    Sounds a lot like the common urban problem of "babymommas" and
    their publicly-funded offspring.

    "Certainly, there are some citizens who need and deserve help from the government, but not these hypocrites."

    How would you distinguish these “deserving” - and presumably "non-hypocritical" citizens - from "these hypocrites"?

    I feel a whole lotta selective outrage comin' on.

    May 5, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  6. Dawn

    This is the kind of stuff that gives TRUE Mormons a bad name....

    it's just plain SICK!!

    Vancouver BC

    May 5, 2008 at 9:37 pm |
  7. Carol B., Virginia

    One can only hope that this old buzzard and others like him will be smited with impotence. What they really have is one wife, numerous welfare dependents, and a whole lotta adultery no matter what spin they want to put on it. Certainly, there are some citizens who need and deserve help from the government, but not these hypocrites. Hopefully the ones that can get away from this cult lifestyle will be reunited with their children. However, pathological moochers should be a no go.

    May 5, 2008 at 8:01 pm |
  8. Gary Chandler in Canada

    How to they provide for them all or is it that the government provides?
    (Annie Kate)
    The wardens of these camps are very wealthy. They have a slave labour force. The local authorities benefit greatly by the business they generate.
    What I can't get my mind around is why the lack of freedom of movement, universal education and the loss of freedom of religion for anybody who gets stuck, or who is born into the camps as drone is not considered abuse.
    If adults in a free society want to be polygamous, go ahead! However, it is down right brainwashing to enclose children and preach and teach that that is the only way of the world. It is sick that we have allowed this to go on for so long.
    Even without broken bones and underage sex, the case of brainwashing should be enough to drive into these prisons and introduce some reality and freedom of choice.

    May 5, 2008 at 7:36 pm |
  9. Annie Kate

    As hard as it is to believe the sect members may really not know how old they are since birthdays are not celebrated according to Carolyn Jessup's book. Easy to lose track when no attention is paid. I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around how many wives and children some of these men have. How to they provide for them all or is it that the government provides?

    Is there any concern on the part of CPS that any charges they may bring against the men for having underage wives won't stand up in court because the search warrant was based on what seems to be a hoax call? And is there any hint of a long term plan for the chlldren – do they stay in foster care or will they be put back with their mothers and monitored?

    Thanks for your coverage on tis.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 5, 2008 at 4:59 pm |
  10. Mike in NYC

    "No formal criminal charges have been filed in the case."

    The arrest warrant for Dale Barlow, the alleged husband of the alleged, still elusive "Sarah," was dropped today.

    Looks like the gov is trying to back out slowly and "gracefully."

    This case seems to be dying due to lack of support from reality.

    No matter. Now we've got the New Mexico "messiah." And away we go!

    May 5, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Cindy

    As much inbreeding as seems to go on in this cult I wouldn't be surprised if most of them are related in some way or another.

    And the police has to know that the FLDS is not going to have the correct ages of these girls written down on any list. These people know what they are doing is against the law and I doubt very seriously that they would write down anything that could incriminate them.

    May 5, 2008 at 3:24 pm |