Elissa Wall said it is painful to watch the events unfold in Texas involving her kin within the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
"All of those people down there I know and love very deeply. I know they feel like they're doing what they're supposed to do to get to heaven," she said. "I also know what can happen to these children from first-hand experience."
The former child bride who was the star witness in the criminal case against FLDS leader Warren Jeffs is speaking out about the raid as she promotes her book, "Stolen Innocence." Wall will appear at Sam Weller's Bookstore on Salt Lake City's Main Street tonight, where she will read from her bestseller and have a book signing. The event begins at 7 p.m.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Wall spoke at length about the raid on the YFZ Ranch in Texas, Jeffs' high-profile trial and their feelings about the FLDS Church.
"I know in my heart I did what I had to do to protect other people and give other women a chance that I did not have," she said.
Wall was married at age 14 to her 19-year-old cousin Allen Steed in a 2001 marriage performed by Jeffs. In her courtroom testimony and in her book, she said she tried to resist efforts to be married and she begged Jeffs to let her out of the marriage. She wrote that she attempted suicide the night she first had sex with her husband, the night she alleges she was raped. The marriage ultimately ended when Wall met Lamont Barlow. Pregnant with his child, the two left the FLDS Church.
It was Wall's testimony about her life that led to Jeffs' conviction in a St. George court on two counts of rape as an accomplice. He was sentenced last year to a pair of five-to-life terms.Steed is facing a rape charge.
Wall said she agreed to become the state's star witness against Jeffs because she felt it was about more than her.
"I really honestly have a deep love for my family and all the people that are there. I want to be there to help them and extend a hand when they need one. I don't have any vendetta. I don't have any ulterior motive. I'm not trying to take them down or destroy their religion, not at all," she said. "But I am trying to say you cannot do this to children, you cannot do this to women."
Her husband, Lamont Barlow, was more direct.
"Child brides are happening. They are happening," he told the Deseret News. "My wife was a direct result of that."
Wall said that growing up, she would have done anything for the prophet. When she left and decided to testify against Jeffs, she knew there would be consequences.
"The moment we went public, the second we went public, we were done," Barlow said. "My brothers and sisters, my father, my aunts and uncles, everyone that I dearly loved disowned me in that moment. It was a tough thing for both of us to do."
Wall said she is not able to talk to her mother, sisters and other family within the FLDS community. She remains in a sort-of "witness safety program."
"It is tough for me. It is really tough for me," Wall said, her voice breaking with emotion. "I hope that all of them will step back and take a real hard look, and really assess the situation and truly, honestly in their hearts, follow what is right. Not what someone told them is right."
If she had followed her heart, Wall said, she would have never been married at 14.
"I never would have had three years of pain," she said.
As she writes in her book, she has found comfort and support from her husband and her children.
"I'm really proud of her and the way she's handled herself and the way she's been able to deal with this pressure," Barlow said of his wife. "I'm not bitter. I'm not hateful towards these people. They are my family and I love them dearly. I can't argue with what's happening, and I can't argue with what's happened to my wife."
Wall said she is prepared to face Jeffs again. He is facing charges of sexual misconduct with a minor and incest as an accomplice in Arizona, accusing him of performing more child-bride marriages.
Already, defense attorneys for both Jeffs and Steed are scrutinizing "Stolen Innocence" and whether it will damage the pending trials. Steed's attorney, Jim Bradshaw, wrote a letter to Washington County prosecutors and Wall's attorney, raising concerns.
"I think we can anticipate that these media events as well as the book will consistently include a narrative by her in which she recounts her version of the facts of our pending case," he wrote.
Jeffs' attorneys said in recent court filings they wanted to see Wall's book deal, manuscripts and want to question her co-author, Lisa Pulitzer, and her attorney. Wall said she did not believe the book would taint a jury pool."I am confident they will both get a fair trial," she said. "I don't think this book will affect the fairness of their trial."
During Jeffs' trial in Utah, it was revealed in court that Wall sought a lawyer and filed a civil lawsuit against Warren Jeffs and the FLDS Church before she ever reported a rape to police. She denies it, saying that she had been working with Washington County sheriff's deputies long before she filed a lawsuit against Jeffs.
In her book, she writes that law enforcement had already been looking into her marriage to Steed before she retained her attorney, Roger Hoole, whom she said sought her out. Hoole has represented many ex-FLDS members suing the church.
"I have reasons for filing a civil suit," she said.
Wall filed the lawsuit under the pseudonym "M.J.," making pretty much the same allegations that were made in Jeffs' trial. Wall told the Deseret News she would like to use the money collected from the lawsuit to start a foundation to help others.
She is finishing the paperwork to launch the "MJ Foundation," which will help girls and women leaving the FLDS Church. A portion of her book sales will go toward the foundation and a Web site, themjfund.org, will launch soon.
But there are other reasons for the lawsuit.
"Also to say there's some accountability that has to be owned up for," she said.
Asked how widespread the practice of child-bride marriages is within the FLDS Church, Wall said she did not know.
"The facts are, I was married at 14. It's against the law," she said matter-of-factly.
Barlow said he supports the idea to deal with crimes within polygamy by decriminalizing it. By doing that, he said, it would make it more difficult to hide crimes within the polygamous communities.
"You would have to be consenting adults," he said. "You suddenly remove the fear. Now, these societies can function as normal as possible."Barlow's views were backed up by members of Utah's various polygamous communities at a town hall forum in St. George earlier this month.
Wall said she was called by Texas authorities to help when the April 3 raid began on the YFZ Ranch. What resulted from a phone call alleging abuse has led to the removal of hundreds of children and a custody battle under way in a San Angelo courthouse.
"I was a bridge between the world of the FLDS and the outside world," she said. "I and the other women went down there simply to help educate the Texas officials on the people, the words to use, how to even deal with them."
Wall has been criticized for her role in the raid. She would not say if she ventured on to the YFZ Ranch, citing an ongoing criminal investigation into the case.
She defended Texas' actions, saying they went onto the ranch and found signs of abuse.
"The sad reality is Texas officials have legitimate claims," she said. "They have reason to fear that the girls are being married and having children at way too young of an age. They have reason to fear that children are in a dangerous place. It doesn't mean the mothers don't love their children. It doesn't mean they don't want to be good mothers. It just means there are reasons for what Texas is doing."
Barlow said people should have a little faith in the system and wait to see what evidence CPS presents, but added that child welfare workers had better be sure the allegations they are making are correct and not misleading."The FLDS are going to lean over and say, 'These people are persecuting us and they took our children away at gunpoint,' and the CPS are going to say, 'Well they're abusing their children and they're doing this,' and each of them are going to be in the opposite extreme of the road," he said. "I think what we're going to find is the truth is somewhere in the middle."
Writing "Stolen Innocence" took an emotional toll on her, but Wall said it also allowed her to finally convey what she felt, in her own words.
"Even in talking to you, I still feel pain. It is hard," she said. "You always have this scar, you always have this mark to deal with. It may get easier to talk about, but the scar is still there. It never goes away."
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who is acting as a spokesman for the FLDS Church, declined to comment on the book.
Wall said she wants "Stolen Innocence" to reach out to both the public at large, and the people within the FLDS Church. Asked if she believed anyone within the FLDS communities would read it, Wall had hope."I keep the hope and that's what keeps me going," she said. "I hope my mother and my sisters can read that and they will know in my heart how much I love them and how much I want the very best for them. The only way they can get that is if they understand the reality of what they're in and the reality of choice. That they have a true choice."