Assisting with the escape - Part III

Jason Ferguson

This is the third in a series about Marty and Jen Mechaley and their involvement with assisting several of Warren Jeffs’ daughters in leaving the FLDS.

How do you know a group of girls who lived sheltered, strict, unaffectionate lives have changed?
You hug them, of course.
Jen Mechaley, who along with husband Marty, helped nine girls leave the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is a self-described hugger. When the girls first started to come to the Mechaley home, she would hug them all before they left to go back to North Dakota. At first, you would have thought she was trying to kill them.
“It was like hugging a corpse,” Jen said.
The girls would stiffen up, not sure how to react to the affection. In the FLDS, they didn’t hug their mothers very often. For many, their mother wasn’t around. Rather, they were “raised” by a different woman who oversaw the girls, much like a boss or teacher in a classroom. They weren’t used to the affection they received when they were at the Mechaley home.
“I’d say, ‘get over it, this is what I do,’” Jen said she told the girls as she hugged them on the way out.
The girls had to actually learn how to give a hug.
“It was such a hard thing for them,” Jen said.
The hugs became easier for the girls the more time they spent at the Mechaley home. Before long, it was the girls who were initiating the hugs.
“Before they left they would come up and almost tackle me for a hug,” Jen said with a laugh.
It was just another part of the evolution of the girls, who went from interacting with the Mechaleys strictly out of a desire to gain property back from their Custer County compound to a desire to leave the FLDS, explore life outside the church’s metaphorical walls, and for four months, live with the Mechaleys.
Not long after Jaska Jeffs left the FLDS in July of 2021, other girls followed.
Marty recalls traveling to Williston, N.D., where the girls were living by this time, to pick up another girl who wanted out. The pickup had to be arranged in such a fashion that certain family members were preoccupied with something else (such as a phone call from Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS) so things would run more smoothly.
Sometimes, things didn’t go as planned. Marty recalls the girls had a pair of trailers for the move, but he realized two trailers wasn’t quite going to cut it.
“We were like ‘Oh my God you have a lot of stuff,’” he said with a laugh. “We’re going to need another trailer.”
Unfortunately, after securing a trailer over the phone, Marty and some of the girls went to the business to get the trailer. When the employee saw the girls, she suddenly decided the trailer had bad tires and couldn’t be used. The tires were fine, Marty observed on the way out. It was more discrimination against girls who had nothing to do with what the dark forces in the FLDS were enforcing behind closed doors.
There were also times the girls’ family members figured out what was happening, and turned out en masse to see one of the girls off. There was the time Marty expected a pair of girls to come out to say goodbye to one of the girls, and instead, dozens came outside—all women. If looks could kill, Marty would have been dead a dozen times over. However, there were those who understood.
“One sister came up and thanked me,” he said. “She said to take care of them.”
And, despite Marty’s warnings that the girls needed to be 100 percent sure they wanted out of the FLDS, there were still instances where one of the girls had only one foot out the door.  One girl came to Custer, but would only wear her prairie dress, didn’t want a haircut and struggled to leave the FLDS lifestyle behind. It wasn’t too long that Marty was taking the girl to the Lynn’s Dakotamart parking lot so that an FLDS vehicle could take her back to North Dakota.
That was short-lived, as well. Before long the girl was texting the Mechaleys, begging them to come back and get her once more.
“She said she had never felt love before until she was here,” Marty said. “It felt like family.”
“Please come back and get me,” the girl wrote in a text. “I’m 100 percent sure.”
By this time the FLDS has installed cameras around the house where the girls lived, desperate to keep more girls from leaving. FLDS officials say that once a member decides to leave the FLDS they are banished, but that certainly wasn’t the case with these Jeffs girls. The girls’ mothers, many of whom had nothing to do with their children for years, suddenly did all they could to get the girls back. They would tell the girls that Marty and Jen were evil people who would ultimately turn their back on them. One of the mothers even went so far as to look for a private investigator to dig into the Mechaleys’ past in the hopes of finding something to use against them.
Some of the girls took the bait and stopped talking to the Mechaleys, although some eventually resumed talking to them. Still others they have not heard from since. They still hold out hope they will some day.
As for the eight girls (seven daughters of Warren and one of Nephi Jeffs) who did leave, they spent the next four months trying to cram all of their teenage years (even though many were in their 20s by now) into the time they lived at the Mechaley home. They would help Jen cook dinner, they would do the dishes. They would go swimming at the lake, ride horses, wear colors they previously weren’t allowed to, went camping, went to a For King and Country concert, a Rapid City Rush game, birthday parties for the Mechaley grandchildren, high school football and volleyball games, Deadwood, a Mechaley family reunion, shopping and county fairs.   They loved riding the carnival rides during Gold Discovery Days.
“They were just screaming at the top of their lungs having a great time,” Marty said.
They were “normal.” They were free.
It was during Gold Discovery Days that sheriff’s office employee Nicole Parker took some of the girls to a restaurant for the first time. The girls were obviously scared to be there, and asked Nicole what they should get. She explained to them how the menus worked, and that they could order whatever they wanted. It was a foreign concept. When the girls did eat out, they did it via a drive through window.
Marty had a similar experience when he went with some of the girls to get another of the girls in North Dakota. They made the trip as soon as he got off work, and he told the girls they were going to stop at Applebee’s to eat. They were mortified, and suggested they order online and get the food to go. Marty told them he was not eating ribs in the car.
“As we walked in they were like ghosts,” he said.
Ironically enough, it wasn’t a month later and one of those same girls, Susan, was working as a waitress at Laughing Water restaurant at Crazy Horse, and, by all accounts, doing a bang up job of it at that.
“I pointed that out to her,” Marty said. “A month ago you were horrified to go into a restaurant, and now here you are, you’re working and people really like you.”
And then there was little Monica.
Many people didn’t know it, but in the summer of 2021, Marty and Jen worked with Custer School District superintendent Mark Naugle to enroll one of the girls, Monica, in Custer High School. It was important to the Mechaleys that all of the girls gain or continue their education in the form of school or GEDs. Some of the girls had high school diplomas, but Marty said they were from a “diploma mill place” and weren’t really worth the paper they were written on. Nicole helped the girls work toward their GEDs, and all of them passed the exam on the first attempt.
As for Monica, she was only 16, and since she was a minor, it took a lot of help to free her from the FLDS. The other girls were adamant they not leave Monica behind as they left the church.
Marty laid the groundwork for her leaving, meeting with both Social Services and federal officers, saying it was only a matter of time before she asked him for help to leave the FLDS. He told the officials he would not go to North Dakota and get her and transport her across state lines, but if she came to him asking for help, he planned to help. That day came.
Monica arrived in Custer with the other girls, and pleaded with Marty for assistance. He took her to the home of the late Chris Beesley, who upon meeting Monica and hearing her story agreed to be her attorney. The goal was emancipation or custody under one of the sisters. Monica hadn’t seen her birth mother in eight years.
Unfortunately, Beesley passed away in the middle of the custody battle, and Marty had a tough time finding another lawyer to pick up the reins. Marty eventually reached out to Holding Out Help, which  provides those from a polygamous culture the care, support and resources to become independent and self-sufficient. He was put in touch with Tonia Tewell, the group’s executive director. She said she had a lawyer who specialized in such cases, but told Marty there would need to be a South Dakota-based attorney working on the case as well. Enter Custer attorney Garland Goff, who lent his talents to the cause. An emergency custody order was put in place. Both of Monica’s parents—Warren Jeff and Monica Jessop—were served papers. Monica’s older sister, Josephine, was eventually granted custody.
Monica’s mother didn’t take it lying down, however. She told the other girls what they were doing was kidnapping, and they would be arrested. Marty stepped in, telling the mother he had already talked to law enforcement and they were well apprised as to what was happening.
“You are welcome to call them if you feel this is wrong and you can fight for custody,” Marty said he told Monica Jessop. “Right now I don’t believe it’s a safe environment to go back to you.”
Monica responded by telling Marty he made it hard to support law enforcement. His response?
“If you don’t want to back law enforcement because some kids came to me and asked for help and I helped them, then I don’t need your support,” he said.
Although, Marty says, Monica Jessop is not a bad person, but simply another pawn in the FLDS, another person the church tells what they can and can’t do, and, more importantly, which of her children she can and can’t be around.
“Everything is so screwed up how they move these children and break up these families,” Marty said. “I can sympathize with her. I would love to talk to her today and explain. I wouldn’t change anything.”
Next week, the girls begin to move away and start their own lives, and the Mechaleys reflect on their time spent helping the girls break free from the FLDS.

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