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NAME
Jenny Larson
WHAT HER FRIENDS CALL HER
Aunt Jenny
WHAT HER FOES CALL HER
The Devil
CLAIM TO FAME
Helps women and girls escape polygamous sect of Mormon fundamentalists
IN HER LINE OF FIRE
Sect elders and the ACLU, for its support of legalized polygamy
TAKES HEAT FROM
Sect leaders and scores of close relatives still in the sect

Jenny Larson has been a skeptic since she was a child living in a polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon community. “The prophet when I was growing up was a big, fat pig,” she asserts. Now 59, she’s out of the sect and known for helping other women leave. Larson’s enemies tell her she’ll wind up in hell. Those she’s rescued think otherwise. “They say Aunt Jenny is an agent of the devil,” says Dusty Lato, one of many who sought her assistance over the years. “But to me she was a godsend.”

The sect, officially called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, separated from the Mormon church when it renounced plural marriage in 1890. Based in Colorado City, Ariz., the sect’s estimated 4,000 residents believe polygamy and large families will gain them access to the highest tier of heaven. Women reportedly bear an average of 10 children each.

“It’s a cult is what it is,” says Larson. “They tell you who to marry, what to wear. People there are so brainwashed, they’re like puppets. The leader says ‘frog,’ and they jump. It’s unreal.”

For the last decade, Larson has run an underground railroad of sorts, sheltering young women who run away from the isolated community, helping them find jobs, offering moral support, and collecting donations. Many of the teen-agers are her nieces or cousins; some are underage.

“It’s hard not to help when they come knocking on your door,” says Larson, who lives with her shopkeeper husband in St. George, Utah, 35 miles from Colorado City. “They don’t know how to cope. They have no money and no skills.”

Larson herself was expected to marry into the sect. “I saw the outside world before my family moved there,” she says. “I knew there were choices I could make. My mother was treated like dirt. I wasn’t going to become a baby machine.”

Annette Jessop is one of Larson’s rescues. At 18, she waited for Larson under a bush in the middle of the night. “At first, I thought I was going to get struck by lightning, because that’s what they tell you will happen, and worse,” recalls Jessop, now living in Nevada with her husband and two children.

The women Larson has helped are settled throughout the country. There are a few, however, for whom the culture shock of the “outside world” was too much; they’ve returned home to become plural wives. “My big thing,” stresses Larson, “is I want these girls to have choices.”

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