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Girl from Utah polygamous sect whisked from parking lot, fingers get pointed

Published February 10, 2015 11:28 am

FLDS • Sherilyn Rohbock, 17, found living alone in a trailer, is reunited with her father, then whisked away as her father watches.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The last time Ron Rohbock saw his daughter was in October in a store parking lot in Mesquite, Nev.

He says a white Ford F-350, registered to a member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, stopped. A rear door opened and 17-year-old Sherilyn entered.

Rohbock says someone pulled her inside. He calls what happened a kidnapping.



"You could see it in her face," Rohbock said. "You could see it in her eyes as she was pulled into the truck."

The sheriff's office in Utah's Washington County suspected it was a kidnapping, too. A detective there filed a search warrant seeking information on whether the marshals in the FLDS towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. — collectively known as Short Creek — tracked cellphones to tell the FLDS where to find Sherilyn.

The FBI soon located Sherilyn with her mother, Rachel Jeffs. Under questioning from agents, Sherilyn said she wanted to stay with her mother, according to court documents and an attorney representing Jeffs.

"The FBI acted responsibly and appropriately, did an investigation and determined this child was in a safe environment," according to the lawyer, Jim Bradshaw.

Events leading to the Mesquite episode began five days earlier, when a sheriff's detective found Sherilyn living alone in a travel trailer in Hildale.

Court documents and interviews about Sherilyn, and what happened in Mesquite, lend insight into disputes and allegations that occur when FLDS families split up, and the mistrust between law enforcement inside and outside of the polygamous twin towns.

Rohbock, who told some of Sherilyn's story in the final few minutes of "Prophet's Prey," the documentary that premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, said the FBI has told him Sherilyn, as well as three more of his children with Rachel Jeffs, are probably in Mexico.

Bradshaw declined to comment on his client's location. So did another attorney retained to represent Sherilyn.

Bradshaw criticized the Washington County Sheriff's Office investigation and handling of Sherilyn, pointing out that Utah law calls for a hearing before a judge within 72 hours after a child is removed from a home. No such hearing was sought for Sherilyn by her father. Rohbock also has never filed a petition for custody of any of the children he shares with Jeffs.

Mesquite police have declared what occurred to be a civil matter between parents. Mesquite police have closed their case, though they also made a referral to the FBI.

From rejection to reunion • In 2003, Rohbock became one of the first of hundreds of men that Warren Jeffs evicted as the FLDS leader sought to concentrate his power by reassigning wives to himself or to men he sought to reward.

At the time, Rohbock's family included his legal wife and some celestial wives, including Rachel Jeffs, who is a full sister to Warren Jeffs. Rohbock and Rachel Jeffs had three girls and one son together. Sherilyn is the oldest.

All of Rohbock's wives left him after his expulsion from the church, and he and his legal wife eventually divorced.

Rohbock has described his own experience as being typical for people expelled by the Jeffses. Rohbock was fiercely loyal during his expulsion and afterward believed he had done wrong. He remained unwilling to speak to outsiders about the sect and developed anxiety and depression. With the help of his new wife, Geri, who has a master's degree in psychology, he emerged from depression and moved back to Hildale.

Still, Rohbock hadn't seen the children he shared with Rachel Jeffs for about 11 years. Then, one day, Washington County sheriff's detective Aaron Thompson called.

On Oct. 9, someone who knew Sherilyn tipped Thompson about a girl who had been living alone in a travel trailer in Hildale since July, according to search warrant affidavits. Sherilyn had not been with her mother in two years, the source told Thompson, and had been sent to the trailer by Lyle Jeffs. A "priesthood caretaker," according to the affidavit, brought her a box of food once a week. She was allowed to leave the trailer only to go into a nearby home to bathe and wash laundry.

Sherilyn had a cellphone, the affidavit says, but it was programmed to let her call only four numbers: Lyle Jeffs — believed to be the bishop of Short Creek — his brother Isaac Jeffs, the bishop's call line and a caretaker. The water, sewer and electricity in the trailer were connected to a nearby house.

Rohbock didn't ask Sherilyn much about her living conditions or why she was living in the trailer. He assumes she was sent there to repent. The circumstances bear similarities to stories that others from the FLDS have told, including boys found living in a home outside Pocatello, Idaho, last year. When young people talk back or don't follow strict FLDS rules, they are sent somewhere to study Warren Jeffs' teachings until they are told they can return to their families.

Thompson asked Rohbock if he wanted Sherilyn to live with him, Rohbock said. Rohbock said yes, and issued a missing-person's report for Sherilyn. That and other factors persuaded a justice court judge in Hurricane to issue Thompson a search warrant, which he executed Oct. 22. Sherilyn was taken to St. George for interviews.

Sheriff's detectives, child workers and the FBI all either participated in the interviews or monitored them, Rohbock said. Documents filed with the search warrants suggest Sherilyn would not say where her mother was. Rachel Jeffs eventually was determined to be living in Pringle, S.D., where the FLDS have a compound.

Rohbock said a psychologist from Denver was brought to St. George to work with Sherilyn for a few hours.

"I really don't think that did a lot of good," Rohbock said. "You can't undo a lifetime's worth of brainwashing and indoctrination in a few hours."

Sherilyn was given a choice: Go into the custody of child-protective services or go with her father.

Rohbock assumes it was a tough choice for his daughter. FLDS children are taught they should have no interaction with apostates — as the expelled are called.

Rohbock said Sherilyn had been among the children put into protective custody when Texas authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2008 and had no desire for that again. She agreed to go with Rohbock.

Geri Rohbock went in to speak with Sherilyn first. Rohbock said she was able to gain some of Sherilyn's trust. Then Rohbock went to see Sherilyn.

"She just smiled," Rohbock said, "and we embraced each other."

California, here they come • It was about 2 a.m. when law enforcement told Rohbock and Sherilyn they could go.

But the FBI had instructions for Rohbock, he said. The agents didn't want him to take Sherilyn back to Hildale until he could establish custody.

"We were told to basically hide," Rohbock said.

So Rohbock, his wife and Sherilyn, with just the clothes they were wearing, slept at a relative's home in St. George before driving to California.

Bradshaw contacted Thompson after the detective called Rachel. Bradshaw said he argued against giving Sherilyn to a parent she hadn't seen in 11 years and that Washington County needed to follow the state's procedure for children thought to be neglected.

"Otherwise you're at risk for severe violations of civil rights," Bradshaw said, "which is what happened in this case."

In California, Rohbock said that Sherilyn slowly began to warm to him. In Santa Monica, they stopped at a restaurant on a pier and ordered shrimp — food Sherilyn said she liked. Photos from there show Sherilyn wearing a dark green prairie dress.

Days later, in photos from San Diego, Sherilyn is seen wearing more conventional clothing — a long brown and tan skirt with a black sweater made of light material.

"Then, in a few days, she was putting her arm in my arm," Rohbock said, "and calling me 'Dad' and treating me quite well."

FLDS men have been known to take teenage girls as brides. Rohbock said he didn't ask his daughter if anyone had tried to marry her or if she had been sexually assaulted, but he saw no signs of either. He said he once asked Sherilyn if she wanted to marry one day. She replied, Rohbock said, that she didn't want to marry until she was 25 or 26.

Meanwhile, two days after she was removed from the trailer, Sherilyn was re-entered into a national database for missing people — this time by the marshals in Hildale and Colorado City.

Thompson contacted Marshal Hyrum Roundy, who was with Thompson the night he executed the first search warrant. Roundy said he wasn't the one who put Sherilyn back into the missing-persons database.

Rohbock's attorney and Bradshaw had been having conversations about some type of custody or visitation arrangement between Rohbock and Rachel Jeffs. Bradshaw ended those discussions after what happened in Mesquite.

Found, then lost — again • In Rohbock's version of events, losing his daughter for a second time took three seconds.

On the return from California, Rohbock, wife Geri and Sherilyn stopped at a store in Mesquite. Geri went inside the store. Rohbock said he was on his cellphone with the FBI, discussing what else agents had learned about Sherilyn's case, when the white pickup arrived.

The truck, according to court documents, was registered to Luke Jeffs. He is a nephew of Warren and Lyle Jeffs. Rohbock believes Sherilyn spotted the truck and exited his car to speak to whoever was inside.

When Sherylin was inside the truck, the driver squealed the tires, creating some smoke, and raced out of the parking lot, Rohbock said. He said he was still on the phone with the FBI as he ran after the truck while reading the license plate number to the agent on the other end of the line.

Bradshaw said Rachel Jeffs was in the truck. Sherilyn had been in contact with her attorney and wanted to go with her mother, Bradshaw said.

Rachel Jeffs approached, Bradshaw said, and asked her daughter, "Do you want to come with me?" Sherilyn said yes and got into the truck, Bradshaw said.

The FBI contacted Bradshaw and made arrangements to speak to Rachel Jeffs and Sherilyn. The meeting was at the marshal's office in Colorado City. Bradshaw, concerned at how Washington County had seized Sherilyn once, asked that no one from the county attend.

At the meeting, Sherilyn told FBI agents she wanted to be with her mother, according to both Bradshaw and Danielle Hawkes, the attorney who represents Sherilyn. The FBI let both mother and daughter go and canceled all the alerts that had been sent to law enforcement to locate them.

Rohbock said an agent later told him that the FBI should have put them in a safe house.

Rohbock would like all his children back and is considering a custody petition with the Utah courts.

Bradshaw says Rachel Jeffs will respond to any custody petitions by asserting her claim for custody.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what has come of Washington County's investigation into the Short Creek marshal's office. The Washington County Sheriff's Office has declined to comment on the investigation. An attorney representing the marshals also declined to comment.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

 

 

 

 

 

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