Weddings at Nevada Motel Backdrop to Trial of Polygamist Sect Leader

Room 15 seems like an unlikely place for a wedding.

There are no flower-covered arbors, pews or unity candles waiting to be lit. It's just an apartment-style motel room with a bed, a dresser, table and a couch. A door off the kitchenette leads to small patio with a fire pit.

But there were dozens of weddings here at the quaint, quirky Caliente Hot Springs Motel, "world famous" for its warm, therapeutic waters.

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Dozens of religious unions arranged between underage girls and men from a polygamist church whose leader, Warren Jeffs, now stands accused of rape as an accomplice for marrying a 14-year-old girl to her older first cousin.

The leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Jeffs, 50, will be in a Utah court Tuesday for a hearing to determine if prosecutors have enough evidence to try him on two first-degree felony charges.

If there's a trial and Jeffs is convicted, the man some 10,000 followers revere as a prophet could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Prosecutors allege the bride, who is referred to in court documents as Jane Doe No. 4, told Jeffs she didn't want to marry — she believed she was too young. Later, she begged to be released from the union, saying she didn't like marital relations.

But Jeffs said the marriage was her religious duty and threatened her with the loss of her salvation, court documents state.

That threat may have been what she was thinking when she stood dressed in white and said, "I do," sealing the spiritual marriage with a secret handshake.

FLDS weddings in Caliente came in bunches, said Carolyn Jessop, a former FLDS member, who ran the motel for a year. Once or twice a month, beginning in the spring of 1999, Jessop would get a telephone call, telling her to plan for a weekend of weddings — some say as many as 10 in one day.

"Room 15 would have to be cleared out the day before and cleaned," she said. Jessop would scurry to see if guest reservations could be changed or canceled. When it wasn't possible, the weddings would wait.

Wedding parties and church elders would arrive in a caravan of cars about midmorning, not long after checkout for guests.

"They did not want anybody on the property," said Jessop, whose husband Merrill Jessop owned the 18-room motel with her father, Art Blackmore, for seven years until he sold it in 2004.

Each wedding was different, but girls usually arrived with their parents, including "other mothers," their father's plural wives.

The groom might bring his own plural wives. In some ceremonies, the first wife might even hold the young bride's hand, placing gently in the groom's as a symbolic gesture that she accepted the new wife into the family.

"You would only bring the wives you have confidence in," Jessop said. "The ones who would keep the secret."

After the ceremony, FLDS elders would share a meal cooked by some of the women. Back then Jeffs, was still a prophet-in-waiting to his father Rulon Jeffs.

But Rulon, who died in 2002, was ill and fading.

"So Warren [Jeffs] would arrange for the crime, and then perform the crime," said Jessop, who left the sect and her husband in 2003. "I can't imagine the trauma that some of these younger girls must have gone through."

The drive between Caliente and Hildale, Utah, one of the twin border towns where most FLDS members live, is 160 miles — most of it on the two lane State Route 56 through Utah's Antelope Mountains and across the Escalante Desert. Travelers pass Modena — population 13 — just before crossing the Nevada state line.

Why go all that way?

Because the states of Utah and Arizona were passing legislation to address underage marriage and threatening prosecutions, including putting some young girls in jail, Jessop said.

"The leaders thought [Caliente] was a way to go under the radar screen. It was a safe place," she said.

Warren Jeffs and other church leaders refused when asked directly by authorities to abandon the practice of placement marriages for young girls, she said.

Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff took office in 2000 and met with FLDS leaders, his spokesman Paul Murphy said.

"They said 16- and 17-year-olds were a gray area," said Murphy. "Their logic is that if you're monogamous, you can legally marry at 16 or 17. Our position is that you can't engage in an illegal marriage or have sex at 16 or 17. That applies to polygamous marriages and non-polygamous marriages."

Utah later passed a child bigamy law making it a felony to arrange a marriage between a minor and an older, already married person. Included in the law is a provision for the kind of spiritual ceremonies that seal FLDS marriages. Arizona has since passed a similar law.

It's unclear when Utah or Arizona authorities knew the FLDS were crossing into Nevada to wed. But Jeff's under-the-radar approach seems to have worked in Caliente.

"It was common knowledge that the [polygamists] owned the motel, but we never heard anything about marriages," said Lincoln County sheriff's office Sgt. Kerry Lee, who's been in the area 17 years. "The first time I heard of it was on the national news. If we had gotten a complaint, we would have done something."

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