August 22, 2001
SALT LAKE CITY (AP)--One of the first things Caroline Cooke did after she escaped from her polygamist community was cut her knee-length hair to an above-the-shoulder bob. She also traded her full-length dresses for sleeveless shirts and shorts.

They were radical and symbolic moves for the 15-year-old girl who walked away from her family and religion, which encourages pioneer-style long hair and long dresses for women.

Cooke left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the country's largest polygamist groups, four months ago because she feared she soon would be married to a man three times her age who already had more than a dozen wives.

``I just feel free. I get to listen to music, to watch TV, to look on the Internet. For the first time in my life I get my own room,'' said Cooke, who now lives with her uncle's family in rural southwestern Colorado.

The situation of girls such as Cooke has gotten more attention as a result of the case against polygamist Tom Green, who does not belong to the group. Green, 52, was convicted in May of keeping five wives in Utah's first polygamy prosecution in nearly 50 years.

He is also awaiting trial on charges of child rape stemming from his marriage to a young woman in Mexico, apparently when she was 13. She is pregnant with her seventh child.

Members of the Mormon church brought polygamy to the West when they settled Utah more than 150 years ago. The church renounced polygamy in the 1890s and now excommunicates those who practice it. But some groups and individuals - including the FLDS church - say they are adhering to early Mormon tradition. Estimates put the number of polygamists in the West at 30,000.

Life within the closed FLDS community is strict, and women have little say about their futures, Cooke said. Almost all the teen-age girls in the group are married at 16 to men much older.

Cooke said FLDS leaders found out about her secret 18-year-old boyfriend, who was promptly kicked out of the group. But for girls, it is harder to leave.

``They want as many girls as they can get,'' she said.

Cooke has not been in school since she was in sixth grade and has only been educated in schools run by polygamists, she said. Now she nervously awaits her first day in public school on Sept. 1.

She said she has no regrets. However, her decision has meant estrangement from her polygamist parents and 26 brothers and sisters.

While Cooke adjusts to her new life, another 15-year-old girl is making her case in Salt Lake juvenile court to leave the same polygamist community.

In addition, an older sister of 14-year-old Ruby Jessop is claiming the teen is being held against her will inside the FLDS community in Utah. Flora Jessop said her sister was forced into a marriage with her stepbrother.

The FLDS church, governed by Rulon Jeffs, is said to have as many as 12,000 members. It is headquartered in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, but its members dominate the remote stateline towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Scott Berry, the group's Salt Lake City-based attorney, was out of town and unavailable for comment, a secretary said.

Todd Minchey, a regional director with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, said that when girls leave the tightlipped polygamist communities, it is rare that the outside world hears about it. He thinks these cases are getting more attention now because of the Green case.

Cooke said being a part of the polygamist community was like living in a foreign country, though she spent the past six years in Salt Lake City.

Diana Hollis, an investigator in the Utah Attorney General's criminal division whose job is to look into these closed societies, has childhood memories of trying to peer inside a neighbor's polygamist household.

``I'd look through the knotholes in the fence that surrounded the home and say, `I wish those kids would come out and play with us,''' she said. ``Who would have thought I would still be looking through the knotholes?''

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