17 Nov 2007

A battle for Bountiful's children

Vancouver Sun - CanWest News Service

November 17, 2007
Teressa Wall Blackmore, mother of three, testified against Warren Jeffs

In mid-September, Teressa Wall Blackmore walked confidently to the witness stand in the St. George, Utah courtroom to testify against fundamentalist Mormon prophet Warren Jeffs.

Dressed in a smart suit with attractively styled hair, Blackmore clearly no longer belonged to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

What Teressa had no idea about was the truth of the adage, "No good deed goes unpunished."

Teressa's testimony supported her sister's. Elissa Wall was 14 years old when she was forced to marry her 19-year-old first cousin, Allen Steed, who subsequently raped her.

The first rape occurred only a few weeks after the wedding in the spring of 2001. Shortly after she was raped, Elissa and her husband visited Teressa and Roy Blackmore, in Bountiful, B.C. During that first visit, Teressa testified that Elissa confided in her about the rape.

The second visit stretched from late fall 2002 into February 2003 because Elissa had a miscarriage. It was her second one. By then, Teressa testified, "She was basically a body with no soul."

Within two weeks of the jury convicting Jeffs on two counts of rape as an accomplice, Teressa's estranged husband, Roy Blackmore, filed for sole custody of their three children as well as an interim order from the B.C. Supreme Court for Teressa to return the children from her new home in Payette, Idaho to the closed, polygamous community in Bountiful.

Roy never objected when Teressa took the children in June, which suggests that this is retaliation from the FLDS leaders and a warning to others not to testify against the prophet.

But the custody battle is more than that. It is a landmark case with ramifications far beyond the fate of three children.

Children's best interests

A B.C. Supreme Court justice will have to determine whether it's in the best interests of children to be raised in the closed, polygamous society. The judge must decide if children are harmed by being raised in a community where the illegal practice of polygamy, arranged marriages, forced marriages, underage brides and perfect obedience to the prophet are the norm.

In deciding, the judge must consider the religion itself. The FLDS is listed as hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its prophet is not only in jail, his mental stability seems questionable.

In jailhouse confessions to his family last January, Jeffs renounced the role of prophet, declared himself guilty of immoral acts with a sister and a daughter and then attempted to hang himself in his solitary cell in Purgatory Correctional Facility.

Jeffs will be sentenced on Tuesday and faces from five years to life on each count in prison. Even though he plans to appeal, Jeffs may be on trial again within a few months -- this time in Arizona where he's charged with five counts of sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of conspiracy.

But if FLDS leaders thought that the custody suit might dissuade Teressa, Elissa and their other sister Rebecca from testifying at that trial, they once again under-estimated the stubborn, fearless sisters.

Teressa Wall was a rebellious teen, growing up in Salt Lake City's fundamentalist Mormon community alongside her 14 siblings and 10 half brothers and sisters. In FLDS terms that means she asked a lot of questions and listened to the radio.

Her father, Lloyd Wall, managed a number of church-owned companies. Her mother, Sharon Steed, was the second of three wives.

In 1997, Teressa sat stubbornly silent through an hour-long meeting with FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs. Finally, he ordered her to go to the FLDS community in Canada -- Bountiful -- to work and repent. Unless she did that, he told her, she would not be welcome back in his house or in her family.

Winston Blackmore -- Bountiful's bishop and superintendent of the government-funded school -- sent Teressa to work at his post-and-pole-manufacturing mill in Sundre, Alta. Dressed in her pioneer-styled dress without the benefit of any safety equipment, she got no pay for working the night shift -- only room and board.

"They were trying to make my life miserable so that I would agree to get married," she said in an interview.

Blackmore, 40, offered to add her to his growing list of wives -- he eventually had 26. She refused. She also refused Winston's suggestion that she marry Winston's older brother, Brandon, whose wives included two of Teressa's aunts and one of her sisters.

In 1998, Winston told her that if she didn't get married, she would have to leave the community. Teressa eventually agreed to marry Winston's nephew and Brandon's son, Roy. He was 18 and had told Teressa's cousin that he loved Teressa even though he'd barely spoken to her.

"I believed there were only a few more years before the end of the world [as Rulon Jeffs had prophesied]," Teressa says. "So with all the people putting pressure on me, I thought why not? It will only last two years. I already knew I was damned to hell and I didn't know where else I could go."

On May 31, Teressa and Roy were married in a religious ceremony. Two months later, they were married again in a civil ceremony even though Teressa was living illegally in Canada, having long overstayed her six-month visitor's visa.

Teressa no longer had to work in the mill. But she continued to live in Sundre with Roy in a single room in his brother's house.

It was immediately apparent they wanted different things. Teressa wanted to have fun and get to know her husband. Roy "wanted to get busy and start a family right away."

Their first daughter, Jasmin, was born in April 1999. Three months later, Teressa was pregnant again. Their son, Nike, was born in May 2000 in Bountiful. The next day, Roy went back to work in Sundre, leaving Teressa to live with two babies in a single room in the workshop area in her father-in-law's garage.

A few months later, Teressa was told to move into a decrepit trailer in one of Winston's logging camps in the Bugaboo Mountains where Roy was working 10 to 12 hours a day.

There was no running water. The toilet was an outhouse.

Roy got paid $1,000 a month. Of that, 10 per cent had to be paid in tithes. More went to special "donations." With the end of the world coming, Winston ordered frequent practice "famines."

Families were told to stock up. Then, for three months they could not buy any groceries. Grocery money had to be handed over to the church. During one of those "famines," Teressa and her family lived for weeks on only a five-gallon bucket of rice.

By the time their second daughter, Summer, was born in June 2002, there was chaos in Bountiful. Winston had been excommunicated. About half the community stuck with him; others, including Roy Blackmore, choose to stick with the FLDS.

"The church things were getting really crazy. We couldn't wear prints. We had to wear plain colours and all of Warren's other craziness," Teressa says.

After Rulon Jeffs died in September 2002, Warren became the prophet. Teressa's older sister, Rebecca, had been assigned at 19 to marry the 83-year-old Rulon. With Rulon dead, his son Warren tried to force Rebecca to marry him. Instead, she fled.

Defiance blamed for illness

Roy told Teressa she could no longer contact Rebecca. She was an "apostate." Teressa defied him and went to visit Rebecca in Oregon in the fall of 2003.

While she was there, Teressa's youngest daughter became very ill and spent more than a month in hospital. Teressa was blamed for Summer's illness; it was God's retribution for her wickedness.

She went back to Oregon in June 2004 and only went back at the end of August because Teressa says she couldn't bear to live without her children.

Roy was "offish" and suspicious. A few weeks later, the new FLDS bishop Jim Oler, on orders from Jeffs, told the couple that they could no longer sleep together. They could only live as man-and-wife if Teressa repented and agreed to be re-baptized.

Roy begged Teressa to do as she was told and write a letter, repenting a list of "sins" including her failure to wear the so-called holy underwear. As Teressa had expected, it wasn't enough. She was asked to do more penance. She refused.

Roy continued to work away from Bountiful during the week, leaving Teressa alone with the children. By then they had their own apartment in Bountiful. Roy became convinced Teressa was having an affair. She'd developed a close friendship with his cousin, Ben Blackmore. In FLDS society, men and women can't be friends.

One fall night, midweek and close to midnight, Teressa heard footsteps on the roof of their home. She heard someone slide down over the eaves in an attempt to look in the window. Terrified, she called a neighbour. When he came over to investigate, they found a ladder propped up against the house. After he'd gone, the phone rang a couple of times. No answer, just heavy breathing.

Teressa locked the door. No one locks their door in Bountiful. A few minutes later, there was banging on the door. The door rattled and metal scraped in the lock.

Teressa was in the hallway with Roy's shotgun in her hand when Roy came around the corner. Fortunately, she didn't know how to load the gun.

Roy believed he'd catch her with another man.

At the end of March 2006, Teressa told Roy she was leaving. She no longer believed Jeffs was the prophet and she didn't want her daughters to be married at 14 like her sister Elissa. Teressa urged Roy to leave with her. He refused, but agreed that she could take their daughters, but he demanded that their son, Nike, stay behind.

Teressa says Roy told her that he was choosing God and the prophet over his family and that he would be rewarded 10 times for doing that. Roy disputes that. In his affidavit, he says, "I was not prepared to lose everything just because she wanted to leave."

Teressa went to Payette, Idaho, where Rebecca now lives with her husband, a former FLDS member. With only a Grade 9 education, the only job Teressa could get was waitressing at night. Rebecca looked after the girls, while Teressa worked. But nobody was happy with the arrangement.

Teressa took her daughters back to Roy in June 2006. But she told him that when she got settled, she would come back for the children. Roy disputes that, but Teressa's friends, Ben and Suzann Blackmore have sworn affidavits confirming that.

'Children have very soft voices'

When school ended in June 2007, Teressa collected her children -- now aged eight, seven and five. She works as a bank teller, has a rented three-bedroom house with a yard and has a boyfriend.

Even though the children were far behind where they should be in school, they are doing well now. Nike was held back in Grade 1 for a second year, but last week he was named Student of the Month for his academic improvement. Jasmin is doing well in Grade 3 after lots of extra coaching from her mom. Summer is happy in kindergarten and at her daycare.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia's children and youth representative, is very concerned about what might happen to those three children.

"Children have very soft voices," she said. "But it is very significant that their interests are considered and their voices heard. In principle, children need their own lawyer, an advocate who knows the system well because there is important information that needs to be put before the court."

Because Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is the B.C. government's responsibility to appoint a lawyer to represent them.

All Teressa or her lawyer need do is ask, Turpel-Lafond said.

That would help level the playing field because right now, it's the coffers of a church staked against a bank teller's wages over the fate of three children.

If Teressa loses, she's afraid her children will disappear as her mother and four sisters did more than two-and-a-half years ago, and that her daughters' futures will mirror her sister Elissa's past.



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