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Before flood, polygamist sisters received eviction notice and offers they refused

Published September 18, 2015 10:53 am

Polygamy • A former FLDS member who got permission to move into the house says he now regrets his actions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Hildale • If Russell Cooke had known who the women were, he says, he wouldn't have evicted them — not on that day in June, anyway.

He would have let Josephine and Naomi Jessop and their eight children stay in the house until they were sure they had another place to go, he says. He could have gone and talked to their father. Maybe Cooke even would have found a way for them to live with his family in the house.

The house sits on Jessop Avenue, after all. Plus, through the plural marriages that intertwine everyone in Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek and home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Cooke could claim Naomi and Josephine Jessop and their sister Della Johnson as relations.



But Josephine and Naomi Jessop hadn't told Cooke anything, he said. He didn't know their names. So, with the help of four Washington County sheriff's deputies, he forced the women and children to leave.

Josephine and Naomi Jessop, Della Johnson and nine of their children died Monday when flash floods overtook two vehicles carrying their respective families in Hildale. A 10th child, Tyson Lucas Black, age 6, remained missing late Thursday and is presumed dead. Three other children survived.

"I am just tore up," Cooke, 43, said Wednesday night as he held a shovel along the bank of a muddy wash, where he was about to dig for Tyson's remains.

"I guarantee you it wouldn't have made a difference," said his older half-brother, Doug Cooke.

Russell Cooke's story of how he came to evict people he considered family is emblematic of how people who no longer follow FLDS leader Warren Jeffs have been pitted against those who are still loyal to him in order to obtain homes. It also articulates how Josephine and Naomi Jessop were living after being isolated from their husband.

Communal living

Cooke's mother was living in the home on Jessop Avenue when he was born, he said. His mother was one of his father's four wives. The Cooke family didn't own the home.

Since Short Creek's founding in the early 20th century, FLDS members have believed in communal living where assets are shared. The home belongs to the United Effort Plan. It's a trust incorporated by FLDS members in 1942 to hold much of the home and land in Short Creek.

Although occupants may not own their homes, they have been expected to care for them as if they did. While Cooke was still in elementary school, he and his brothers helped build additions onto the house, he said.

The Cookes moved to another UEP house when he was 11. He remained loyal to Jeffs until the August 2012.

That's when, Cooke said, Jeffs from prison issued an edict that husbands and wives could not have sex with each other. Cooke and his wife left the church a month later.

Cooke and his wife — he says his only wife — continued to live in Colorado City. Brothers who had left the FLDS earlier encouraged Cooke to claim his birthright and pursue a home from the UEP.

The state of Utah seized the UEP in 2005 over concerns Jeffs was mismanaging it and was putting people at risk of losing their homes. A state judge in Salt Lake City oversees the trust. People who can demonstrate a rightful claim to a UEP home must sign an occupancy agreement and pay $100 a month.

Jeffs has barred the FLDS from signing the agreements and paying the fees, former members have said. Yet many FLDS continue to inhabit the 700 homes in Short Creek, essentially squatting and living in such secrecy that UEP employees don't even know who resides in many of the homes.

In January, Cooke applied with the UEP board to live in his childhood home. He was approved in May.

But when Cooke went to the house, he could tell people were living there. He didn't know who or how many. When he approached the house, a woman and children ran inside and slammed the door.

Married and separated

Josephine, Naomi and Della Johnson were born to Kendall Johnson — a prominent man in the FLDS' community in Bountiful, British Columbia — and his various wives, according to Cooke and other people in Short Creek. Cooke has known Kendall Johnson for years. One of Kendall Johnson's wives is Cooke's father's sister.

While Della Johnson became the lone wife of Sheldon Black, Jr., both Josephine and Naomi married Joseph N. Jessop. Records used in the prosecutions of FLDS men in Texas show Joseph Jessop legally married Josephine on April 10, 2003.

When Joseph Jessop took Naomi as a spiritual wife in an April 20, 2005, ceremony performed in Texas by two of Jeffs' brothers, the records show, Naomi was 16 and the groom was 22. Joseph Jessop has never been charged with any crimes related to bigamy or unlawful sex. (FLDS records list Naomi's surname as Jessop after the marriage, though there's no legal record she ever changed her name.)

Joseph Jessop is the son of the man who was the bishop of the FLDS's Yearning For Zion Ranch, located in Eldorado, Texas. The Texas evidence also shows Joseph Jessop was a driver for Jeffs when he was fleeing law enforcement in 2005.

That pedigree and connections apparently only helped Joseph Jessop for so long. Former FLDS who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune this week said Joseph Jessop had been separated from his wives and children for at least two years — that FLDS leaders had told him to go repent from afar, though the former members didn't know why. (The FLDS church has no spokesman and its leaders are reclusive, yet former members seem often hear when another members has been ostracized from the sect. Joseph Jessop has not made himself available for questions.)

The process

With no one responding to his efforts to communicate, Cooke said, he decided to begin the process of evicting the people inside his old family home.

On June 15, a judge granted the eviction petition.

Five days later, Cooke, his friend and another former Jeffs follower named Patrick Pipkin and the sheriff's deputies went to the home to serve the order.

"We did not want to evict them," Pipkin said Wednesday, beside a flooded field where he, too, was looking for Tyson.

Pipkin said he and Cooke assumed the women and children in the home were without their husband or husbands and, as former followers of Jeffs themselves, had sympathy for others trapped between following Jeffs' orders and the risk of losing more family. But Cooke had to at least talk to the occupants to discuss the situation.

A deputy knocked on the door first and announced why he was there. A woman came to the door. Cooke and Pipkin learned later it was Naomi Jessop.

After speaking with the deputy, Naomi Jessop agreed to talk with Cooke.

Cooke explained how the UEP had given him the home.

"I heard Naomi say, 'We don't have any place to go,'" Pipkin recalled.

Cooke said he told Naomi Jessop he was willing to give her more time to stay, but Cooke wanted to know who her caretaker was. FLDS women and children separated from they wives or parents are typically assigned a male figure to watch over them. Knowing who the caretaker was would give Cooke a clue about just who in the FLDS he was dealing with.

Naomi Jessop looked down at the floor.

"She said, 'You know I can't tell you that,'" Cooke said.

Cooke thought about not going through with the eviction. Pipkin encouraged him to continue.

"I just told Russy we're being played," Pipkin said Wednesday.

The women were told to leave. They and the children began packing.

As Cooke and the deputies were walking through the backyard, seeing what was there, Joseph Jessop's brother Ernie Jessop arrived. Cooke said he has known the Jessop boys since they were all kids.

Ernie explained that the women were his brother's wives.

That's when, Cooke said, it hit him who he was evicting: His own extended family and the family of people he grew up with.

New homes

Lorin Holm, a Colorado City resident who left the FLDS years ago, said Thursday that in the weeks before the flood he saw Josephine and Naomi living next to him in another UEP house. Again, the sisters hadn't told any UEP employees they were there.

Cooke spoke to The Tribune about the eviction because he doesn't want the UEP or the states of Utah or Arizona to be blamed for forcing the Jessop wives and children to move. He appreciates all the government agencies that have helped after the flood.

Despite the efforts to cooperate with the Jessop wives, Cooke says he feels awkward about the house he went to court to get. He and his family have been living elsewhere while they remodel the home. They have spent $50,000 on the remodel so far.

Cooke says he considers the Johnson, Jessop and Black men to be his brothers.

"I just feel really sorry for the families," Cooke said.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

 

 

 

 

 

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