SALT LAKE CITY — A key witness in Texas and Utah trials that dealt blows to Warren Jeffs and many of his followers in the Fundamentalist LDS Church has not spoken publicly outside of court — until now.
But Rebecca Musser, the 19th of 65 wives of Jeffs' predecessor, Rulon Jeffs, did not talk Wednesday about the behind-the-scenes details of the prosecutions related to the raid of the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, that led to 11 convictions.
Instead, she sought to deliver a message of inspiration and personal empowerment to the audience of mostly women at an event called Women Overcoming Obstacles.
Musser said she has chosen not to speak publicly until now, because she felt her voice would be more powerful testifying over 20 times in court against the men and the sect that once owned her, "body and soul."
At age 19, Musser was forced into an arranged marriage with Rulon Jeffs, who was 85 at the time.
"My father sold my innocence," Musser said. "My life there was a constant state of fear, unknown ... silence."
The FLDS consider women the property of men, Musser said, with their sole duty to obey their husband perfectly, just as the men must obey the prophet perfectly. She said no one ever told her that she had the right to refuse sexual relations with the then-FLDS prophet.
She had been told: "Don't you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever tell your husband 'no' or you will be destroyed in the flesh literally."
"After seven years of continual sexual violations, I'd had enough," Musser said. All her life she'd been taught that strict obedience was her only hope of going to heaven. Finally, she decided, "Give me hell because I don't want that heaven."
Seven years later, she finally had the courage to claim her own life and leave the Utah-based polygamous sect when Rulon Jeffs died at age 91 in 2002, she said.
After Rulon's death, Warren Jeffs had told Musser that he would force her into another arranged marriage.
"In that moment, I could not longer deny the fire in my soul that I had silenced for 26 years," she said.
In the wee hours of one morning, she left a note on her bed, slipped past the guards, climbed over a fence and fled the state because she knew Warren Jeffs would be hunting her down.
It wasn't so important that one polygamous wife of many had escaped, she said. "He was terrified of what I knew, of what I had seen. Raised to believe the outside world would harm her "not if, but when," Musser found herself with "hair down to here," she said, gesturing below her waist. She didn't know how to drive, she'd never used makeup, she didn't know how to fit in.
"It was a brutal transition at best," she said.
But for the first time in her life she had the power to decide to cut her hair, the power to build her own life — even the power to simply wear the color red, which Warren Jeffs had outlawed among the FLDS people. In celebration of that power to have her own voice, Musser appeared Wednesday dressed in a bright red dress and bright red high heels.
Still seeking her new life, she couldn't forget her sisters and sister wives she'd left behind, Musser told the audience.
She couldn't forget her 14-year-old younger sister, Alyssa Wall, forced into marriage and rape. Musser first testified against Warren Jeffs during the 2007 trial in St. George, when he was convicted of rape as an accomplice for marrying Wall and her cousin.
"I could not deny those I'd left behind," she said. "They deserved to know what respect was."
Following the 2008 raid of the church's YFZ Ranch in Texas, Musser helped police and prosecutors decipher seized records and understand the sect's culture. Providing such assistance and testifying became her way of giving those women and girls a voice.
But those trials came with their own trials for Musser. The Texas attorney general had obtained the use of a 7,000-acre ranch and hunting lodge to provide security for witnesses. In those confines, the wait for the trials to begin seemed endless, and her anger and frustration built up.
"I was a heaping pile of (ticked) off," she said.
One day she slipped past the security, found a big rock and began to cry and cry, "shedding tears like acid" that burned her face.
"Why did I have to be the one to hold these men accountable?" she asked. Her tears all cried out, an awe and a hush, a sense of wonder and peace settled over her, and she said she clearly heard a voice speaking to her.
"Do not ask, 'Why me?'" the voice said. "Instead ask, 'Show me.'"
She understood she had to go forward and it would work out.
"I was not there for me," Musser said of the trials. "I was speaking for other people."
She testified for those she loved who were still in the faith, many who were attending the trial, "looking at me as if I were Satan's child."5 comments on this story
"I could speak truth from a place where I could recognize my humanity and my divinity," Musser said. "It was never about the convictions. I was there to be a voice to someone who had no voice."
In a hushed tone, Musser challenged the audience, "I invite you to ask that difficult question, to ask 'show me.' ... You will become open to possibilities. ... The tools will be placed in your path.
"What have you been telling yourself that you cannot do and be?"