Under the banner of heav.., p.7

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 7


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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  Frustrated, the Smarts took matters into their own hands. In early February 2003 they held a press conference during which they released the best police sketch to the public. Soon thereafter a woman who saw the composite drawing called to report that it bore a resemblance to her brother, a man of strong religious views named Brian David Mitchell who refered to himself as Immanuel. She sent in a photo of Mitchell, which on February 15 was broadcast on the television show America's Most Wanted, along with photos and videotape of Elizabeth and footage of Ed Smart pleading with viewers to help find his daughter.

  On March 12, 2003, an alert motorist who had watched the America's Most Wanted segment spotted someone who resembled Mitchell in the suburb of Sandy, walking down State Street, a busy, six-lane thoroughfare that is one of the main north-south arterials in Salt Lake County. The Mitchell look-alike was dressed in seedy robes and sandals and was accompanied by a middle-aged woman and a teenage girl, who were similarly attired. The motorist dialed 911.

  A pair of police officers, Karen Jones and Troy Rasmussen, pulled up in a squad car and stopped the oddly dressed trio. The man, who had a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and wore flowers in his unkempt hair, gave his name as Peter Marshall and insisted on speaking for the two females, who were wearing sunglasses and cheap gray wigs in an apparent attempt to disguise their identities. When questioned directly, the teenager denied that she was Elizabeth Smart, adamantly maintaining that her name was Augustine Marshall. She said she was eighteen years old and that the man with the beard was her father. She seemed extremely reluctant to say or do anything without his consent.

  Officer Jones took the girl aside and questioned her further, but “Augustine” continued to be evasive and uncooperative. When Officer Rasmussen asked her why she was wearing a wig, “she became angry,” he told NBC News. “Told me that was personal, none of my business.” The cops nevertheless persisted in asking if she was Elizabeth Smart, and after forty-five minutes of grilling the teen finally relented. On the brink of tears, she conceded her true identity with a biblical utterance: “Thou sayest”—Jesus's reply to Pilate when asked if he was king of the Jews.

  Even after she had revealed that she was indeed Elizabeth and was sitting in the back of the squad car on her way to be reunited with her father at the police station, she continued to express concern for the well-being of Mitchell and Barzee. “The first question out of her mouth,” said Officer Jones, “was ‘What's gonna happen to them? Are they going to be OK?' Didn't want them in trouble, didn't want them to be hurt. . . . She started crying and cried all the way to the department.”

  Many have wondered how Brian David Mitchell managed to exert such power over the girl, and why during the nine months Elizabeth was his captive she apparently made no effort to escape. But Julie Adkison—a young Mormon woman who became acquainted with Mitchell seventeen months before he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart—has no difficulty comprehending how Elizabeth came under his sway. Adkison was twenty years old and selling shoes at Salt Lake City's Fashion Place mall when she met Mitchell, who expressed an avid interest in sandals and began telling her about the intimate chats he regularly had with God. Not long thereafter, Mitchell handed her a written marriage proposal explaining that the Lord wished for her to become his plural wife. Adkison declined the invitation to become betrothed to Mitchell but continued to meet with him; once she sat with him in a city park for more than five hours, mesmerized as he held forth on Mormon theology. She felt strangely drawn to Mitchell, she told Newsweek magazine, because “everything he said was stuff I was raised on. . . . I wanted to leave for hours, but I just sat there.” Had she been as young and impressionable as Elizabeth Smart, Adkison admitted, “There is no telling what I would have done.”

  Considering the traumas to which she was subjected as Mitchell's captive, Elizabeth appeared to be recovering with surprising grace after being rescued, according to those close to her. Although Elizabeth's father cautioned that she faced “a long road back,” he said that she was faring remarkably well since rejoining her family. David Hamblin, the bishop of the Smarts' LDS ward, pronounced that despite what Mitchell may have done to her, Elizabeth remained “pure before the Lord.”

  From his prison cell, Dan Lafferty speculates that Elizabeth “will be fine after a couple of months or so.” But he regards Elizabeth's tribulations from a perspective not far removed from that of her tormentor—one of a religious zealot with whom, after all, Lafferty has much in common. After averring that he “was happily shocked when I heard that she had been found and that she was alive,” Lafferty opines that Elizabeth “has had a very eye-opening experience”—one that will prevent her from ever viewing her life “in the same way as before.” Disquietingly, he sees this is as a “blessing,” rather than something to mourn.

  As for Brian David Mitchell, in the days following his arrest he steadfastly insisted that he had done nothing wrong, arguing that forcing a fourteen-year-old girl into polygamous bondage was not a criminal act because it was a “call from God.” Speaking through an attorney, he explained that Elizabeth was “still his wife, and he still loves her and knows that she still loves him.”

  Dan Lafferty was not the first person to surmise that Mitchell was a Mormon Fundamentalist who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart in order to make her a plural wife. Immediately after she was abducted—nine months before Lafferty made the same speculative leap—a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, named Flora Jessop e-mailed a statement to the media hypothesizing that Elizabeth had been kidnapped by a polygamist. Her conjecture, although based largely on “gut instinct,” was rooted in personal experience: Jessop grew up in Colorado City as one of twenty-eight siblings in a polygamous family. When she was fourteen she filed sexual abuse charges against the family patriarch, her fundamentalist father, but the judge presumed she was lying and dismissed the case, after which leaders of the FLDS Church confined her in the home of a relative for two years. A defiant, strong-willed girl, she created so much trouble for her keepers that when she was sixteen church authorities gave her a choice: “They told me I had to either marry this guy they'd picked for me—one of my dad's brother's sons—or be committed to the state mental hospital,” says Jessop. She opted for the arranged marriage and then fled both the marriage and Colorado City at the first opportunity. Now thirty-four, she's an antipolygamy activist and has founded an organization called Help the Child Brides.

  Jessop is extremely relieved that Elizabeth Smart was discovered alive and thinks the outpouring of support Elizabeth has received is wonderful. But in Jessop's view it underscores the disturbing absence of support for another young victim of polygamy—her sister, Ruby Jessop—whose predicament she first brought to the attention of government officials more than a year before Elizabeth was abducted.

  Ruby was fourteen years old when she was observed innocently kissing a boy she fancied in Colorado City. For this unforgivable sin she was immediately forced to marry an older member of her extended family, whom she despised, in a fundamentalist ceremony presided over by Warren Jeffs. Like Elizabeth, Ruby was raped immediately after the wedding ceremony—so brutally that she spent her “wedding night” hemorrhaging copious amounts of blood. Unlike Elizabeth, however, Ruby attempted to flee her coerced marriage, running to the home of a sympathetic brother where she thought she would find refuge. Lured away from her brother's house by false promises, in May 2001 Ruby was allegedly abducted by members of the FLDS Church and brought to the home of her stepfather, Fred Jessop, second councilor to the prophet—the same house where Flora Jessop had been confined seventeen years earlier.

  Flora—who fled Colorado City on the day Ruby was born: May 3, 1986—called the county sheriff to report that her sister had been kidnapped. When a sheriff's deputy came to Colorado City to look into the supposed crime, he was told by leaders of the church that the girl was “on vacation”; the deputy accepted this unskeptically and departed. Flora, furious at this apparent dereliction of duty, redoubled her efforts to persuade someo
ne in a position of state authority to take action on behalf of her little sister. A month later, thanks to Flora's agitation, FLDS members were compelled by the Utah Department of Child and Family Services to bring Ruby to nearby St. George and meet with a social worker. Interviewed in the intimidating presence of one of her alleged abductors, Ruby told the social worker that “everything was fine” and was promptly returned to members of the faith. Two years after that, as a sixteen-year-old, she gave birth to a child. Despite Flora's ongoing efforts to rescue her, nobody outside of Colorado City has heard from Ruby since the summer of 2001. She has effectively vanished into the folds of the Fundamentalist Church.

  Antipolygamy activist Lorna Craig, a colleague of Flora Jessop's, is baffled and outraged by Utah's indifferent treatment of Ruby—especially when compared to the colossal effort the state mustered to rescue Elizabeth Smart and prosecute her abductors. Craig notes that both Elizabeth and Ruby were fourteen when they were kidnapped, raped, and “kept captive by polygamous fanatics.” The main difference in the girls' respective ordeals, she says, is that “Elizabeth was brainwashed for nine months,” while Ruby had been brainwashed by polygamous fanatics “since birth.” Despite the similarity of their plights, Elizabeth's abusers were jailed and charged with sexual assault, aggravated burglary, and aggravated kidnapping, while Ruby, says Craig, “was returned to her abusers, no real investigation was done, no charges were brought against anyone involved.”

  The dissimilar outcomes are attributable, in Craig's view, to the fact that Ruby Jessop was born into a polygamous community that has been allowed to break state and federal laws with impunity for many decades. Craig points out that because the mayor, the police, and the judge in Colorado City–Hildale are themselves polygamists who are absolutely obedient to the prophet, there is “nowhere for victims of abuse to turn. . . . I would say that teaching a girl that her salvation depends on her having sexual relations with a married man is inherently destructive.” Such relationships, Craig argues bitterly, should be considered “a crime, not a religion.”



  The sober preacher trained in the dialectics of the seminary was rare west of the Appalachians. One found instead faith healers and circuit-rider evangelists, who stirred their audiences to paroxysms of religious frenzy. . . .

  The revivals by their very excesses deadened a normal antipathy toward religious eccentricity. And these Pentecostal years, which coincided with Joseph Smith's adolescence and early manhood, were the most fertile in America's history for the sprouting of prophets.



  Shortly after the rescue of Elizabeth Smart and the arrest of Brian David Mitchell, FBI agents discovered a twenty-seven-page booklet Mitchell had written two months before he abducted Elizabeth. Titled “The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah,” it purported to be a divine manifesto, as revealed to Immanuel/Mitchell, announcing the inauguration of a new fundamentalist church, the Seven Diamonds Plus One, which would serve as “a brilliant shining diadem of truth.” The tract identified Immanuel/Mitchell as the “one . . . mighty and strong,” and proclaimed that God had ordained him to lead the new church—the “true and living Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its purified and exalted state.” “The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah” also explained that God had transferred the “keys and powers and ordinances of the Holy Priesthood for the salvation of mankind . . . through a succession of prophets.” The booklet traced this divinely ordained lineage from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus “unto Joseph Smith, Jr. and from Joseph Smith, Jr. unto Immanuel David Isaiah and from Immanuel David Isaiah unto the end of the earth.”

  To comprehend Brian David Mitchell—or to comprehend Dan Lafferty, or Tom Green, or the polygamous inhabitants of Bountiful and Colorado City—one must first understand the faith these people have in common, a faith that gives shape and purpose to every facet of their lives. And any such understanding must begin with the aforementioned Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than a century and a half after his passing, the sheer force of Joseph's personality still holds extraordinary sway over Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists alike. “I admire Joseph Smith,” affirms Dan Lafferty, his eyes burning. “I admire nobody else as much.”

  Whether one believes that the faith he spawned is the world's only true religion or a preposterous fable, Joseph emerges from the fog of time as one of the most remarkable figures ever to have breathed American air. “Whatever his lapses,” Harold Bloom argues in The American Religion, “Smith was an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history. . . . In proportion to his importance and his complexity, he remains the least-studied personage, of an undiminished vitality, in our entire national saga.”

  Joseph was born on December 23, 1805, in the Green Mountains of Vermont. His father, Joseph Smith Sr., was a tenant farmer, perpetually on the lookout for his main chance, who had lost all his money a short while earlier in a failed scheme to export ginseng root to China. Finding himself broke and saddled with a crushing debt, Smith père was reduced to scraping out a meager living from a plot of rocky, barely cultivable farmland rented in ignominy from his father-in-law.

  New England was then in the midst of an extended economic depression, and penury dogged the Smith family throughout the childhood of Joseph Junior. Constantly searching for better prospects, the family moved five times during the boy's first eleven years before settling in Palmyra, a town of four thousand in western New York beside the Erie Canal, which at that time was under construction. The canal was the most ambitious engineering venture of that era and had sparked a robust, if temporary, boom in the local economy. Joseph Senior hoped to be a beneficiary of this uptick.

  Here is how the Smith clan is described upon their arrival in Palmyra in 1817, in a typically snide article about the budding prophet published in a local newspaper, the Reflector, on February 1, 1831, as Joseph's new religion began to make a splash:

  Joseph Smith, Senior, the father of the personage of whom we are now writing, had by misfortune or otherwise been reduced to extreme poverty before he migrated to Western New York. His family was large, consisting of nine or ten children, among whom Joe Junior was the third or fourth in succession. We have never been able to learn that any of the family were ever noted for much else than ignorance and stupidity, to which might be added, so far as it may respect the elder branch, a propensity to superstition and a fondness for everything marvelous.

  The latter characterization refers to the spiritual enthusiasms of the Smith parents—particularly the prophet's mother, Lucy Mack Smith. “Lucy had a vigorous but unschooled mind,” observed Fawn Brodie in No Man Knows My History, her magnificent, contentious biography of Joseph Smith:

  Lucy especially was devoted to the mysticism so often found among those suddenly released from the domination and discipline of a church. . . . She accepted a highly personalized God to whom she would talk as if He were a member of the family circle. Her religion was intimate and homely, with God a ubiquitous presence invading dreams, provoking miracles, and blighting sinners' fields.

  Young Joseph's theological proclivities clearly owed much to Lucy. And just as clearly, both mother and son were hugely influenced by the tenor of the times.

  Following the Revolutionary War, the new republic was jarred by a period of ecclesiastical turmoil, during which the established churches were viewed by a large segment of the populace as spiritually bankrupt. The flood of religious experimentation that roiled the United States during the first decades of the nineteenth century, christened the Second Great Awakening, was roughly analogous to the religious upheaval that swept the country in the 1970s (absent the patchouli and LSD). In the early 1800s the ferment was especially strong near the nation's expanding frontiers—including western New York, where the religious fervor flared with such intensity that the area around Palmyra became known as the “
burnt-over district.”

  People imagined the acrid scent of brimstone in the air. The Apocalypse seemed just around the corner. “Never in the history of Western society had the millennium seemed so imminent,” the Mormon historian Hyrum L. Andrus has written; “never before had people looked so longingly and hopefully for its advent. It was expected that twenty years or less would see the dawn of that peaceful era.” It was in this superheated, anything-goes religious climate that Joseph Smith gave birth to what would become America's most successful homegrown faith.

  An earnest, good-natured kid with a low boredom threshold, Joseph Junior had no intention of becoming a debt-plagued farmer like his father, toiling in the dirt year in and year out. His talents called for a much grander arena. Although he received no more than a few years of formal schooling as a boy, by all accounts he possessed a nimble mind and an astonishingly fecund imagination. Like many autodidacts, he was drawn to the Big Questions. He spent long hours reflecting on the nature of the divine, pondering the meaning of life and death, assessing the merits and shortcomings of the myriad competing faiths of the day. Gregarious, athletic, and good-looking, he was a natural raconteur whom both men and women found immensely charming. His enthusiasm was infectious. He could sell a muzzle to a dog.

  The line separating religion from superstition can be indistinct, and this was especially true during the theological chaos of the Second Great Awakening, in which Joseph came of age. The future prophet's spiritual curiosity moved him to explore far and wide on both sides of that blurry line, including an extended foray into the necromantic arts. More specifically, he devoted much time and energy to attempting to divine the location of buried treasure by means of black magic and crystal gazing, activities he learned from his father. Several years later he would renounce his dabbling in the occult, but Joseph's flirtation with folk magic as a young man had a direct and unmistakable bearing on the religion he would soon usher forth.


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