SALT LAKE CITY — A former child bride who was forced into marriage when she was 14 says child marriages are still performed within the Fundamentalist LDS Church under the direction of its imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, and hopes that a large financial penalty by the court will make it stop.
On Monday, Elissa Wall took the witness stand in 3rd District Court to testify as part of a hearing that will help a judge decide what damages Jeffs and the FLDS Church should pay, both to Wall for personal injury and for punitive damages to prevent future abuses.
Wall's personal injury lawsuit has been playing out in the courts for a decade. In May, after Jeffs failed to respond to the lawsuit, a judge allowed for her to collect default damages, which were expected to be millions of dollars. Judge Keith Kelly waited until Monday to hold the hearing on damages to give Jeffs and his attorneys another chance to respond if they wanted to.
At Monday's hearing, the table where Jeffs' attorneys would have sat remained empty as no one from his side attended.
"He is ignoring the legal process," Wall's attorney, Alan Mortensen, said following Monday's hearing.
In 2001, when Wall was 14, she said she was told "the prophet had a place for me” and was ordered to marry her first cousin, Alan Steed, 19. The ceremony was held in Nevada with Jeffs presiding. Wall said she found out just a week before the ceremony what was to happen.
But Wall said she did not want to marry Steed, whom she neither liked nor trusted. She attempted to get out of it, which meant talking directly to Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeff's father, who was the FLDS leader at the time but in ill health and had authorized Warren Jeffs to act as his "mouthpiece," she said.
"He didn't really understand the pleadings of a begging 14-year-old," Wall said.
She said had also been raised to believe that going against Warren Jeffs meant more than just expulsion from the community. "I knew I would go to hell."
Both her and her family's salvation was at stake, she was led to believe.
By that point, Wall said, "I completely melted down and was desperate."
"That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had nowhere to go," she said Monday. "I knew the entire community would turn against me. The fallout was almost more than I could imagine."
Wall said her own biological father was deemed to be unworthy when she was 13, and she and her mother and siblings were taken away from their home in Sugar House and reassigned to a new father in Hildale.
Even after she was married, Wall said she tried getting out of her marriage in "many ways." She said she was innocent and naive at that time and didn't understand the sexual and mental abuse she was suffering. Wall added that she believed that if she was faithful and begged enough, Warren Jeffs would release her from the marriage.
"Ultimately, he would tell me to go home and submit my body and soul to Alan," she said.
A phrase commonly used by FLDS leaders to the females of the community was "keep sweet," she said. That meant "no matter what’s happening in your life, always maintain a sweet, heavenly demeanor."
Two years into her marriage, Wall said the abuse she was suffering was getting worse, and she "started doing anything I could to protect myself," including sleeping in her car to avoid Steed. "Parts of my soul were just slowly dying away."
Eventually, Jeffs did release her from the marriage, but told Wall when she was 18 that she was now an unworthy "horrible person," she said, and that the only way to receive redemption at that point was through blood atonement. Wall testified Monday that that meant Jeffs wanted her to participate in a ceremony in which she walks into an ordained temple and slits her own throat and bleeds until death.
Wall testified Monday that the "brutal" introduction into the world of sexuality when she was 14 heavily traumatized her.
"I felt dirty and broken and worthless for many years," she said. "The emotional abuse was almost more than I could bear."
Wall said she is still recovering today, more than a decade later, from the abuses she suffered.
Wall also recently moved back to Hildale to help other young girls. She told the judge that through her personal contacts, she learned that child marriages briefly stopped after authorities raided the church's YFZ Ranch in Texas in 2008, ultimately leading to Jeff's conviction and life prison sentence for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides.
But many women and children were sent deep "underground," to exclusive compounds where a "whole other layer of very perverted teachings are being given."
Based on Jeffs' writings seized in Texas, underage marriages are still happening and there's "nothing to suggest they will ever stop," according to Wall.
Jeffs, she said, believes the younger the girl, the more pure she is.
"Those women disappear. They disappear weekly. They go way underground," she said.
Wall's attorneys are expected to file final paperwork before a judge begins deliberating in two weeks how much money Wall is entitled to.
In 2011, Steed struck a plea deal and was convicted of solemnization of a prohibited marriage, and he entered a plea in abeyance to a second charge of unlawful sexual activity with a minor. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 30 days in jail.