By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Arizona attorney general's investigators have conducted interviews with several Colorado City women who report widespread sexual misconduct. In a July 26, 2001, interview with state investigators, former fundamentalist Lenora Spencer said her daughter spent hours with a girlfriend generating a list of acquaintances they knew in the Colorado City area.
"They could think of not one of them who had not been molested," Spencer told investigators.
"The adults brush it off like [it's] no big deal, like it's normal," Spencer related.
It is not unusual to find families with more than 20 children from various mothers and fathers living in the same home.
"Many children share the same bedrooms and bathrooms. They are not allowed to listen to music, watch TV, [the boys aren't supposed to] talk to girls, there are no social programs, dances, activities. They teach [that] all these things are evil," a divorced father who left the area and whose children remain there states in a letter to Mohave County Superior Court.
The father says his teenage daughter was fired from her job in town because she spoke to a boy walking past her.
"To even look at a girl is considered evil," he states.
The rules forbidding contact between teenage girls and boys break down when it comes to sexual assault in the home. In most of the criminal cases coming out of Colorado City, the assaults occurred repeatedly and spanned a number of years before they were finally addressed by law enforcement and the courts.
The case of Jeremiah Sunderland Johnson provides insight into the depravity lurking inside some of the polygamous families tucked into the sprawling, ramshackle houses that dominate the town's landscape.
Church leaders contacted Colorado City police in January 1997 and reported a child-molestation case involving 19-year-old Jeremiah, who was living in a home with his stepfather, Lyle Major Jessop, and mother, Sirrene Johnson Jessop -- along with other children and Lyle's additional wives.
Police began a series of interviews with Jeremiah's full sisters, beginning with a 16-year-old. The girl stated that Jeremiah began molesting her when she was about 6 years old. Jeremiah was about 9 when the assaults began. She says Jeremiah had come into her room and persuaded her to take off her clothes. He got on top of her and tried to put his penis inside her, but was unsuccessful. This routine continued until she was 15 and he was 18, after which the two had sexual intercourse about half a dozen times.
Police then interviewed a 14-year-old sister, who recounted a similar story, including having sex with Jeremiah when she was 10. She estimated that they had intercourse six times.
An 18-year-old sister told police that years earlier when Jeremiah was about 11 he had unsuccessfully attempted to enter her when she was 10 years old and in the fourth grade.
Jeremiah admitted to police that he sexually assaulted his sisters, but he claims the incidents began when he was about 12.
The years of unchecked sexual assaults of his sisters while they were inside their home had a devastating effect.
"I feel that he has hurt me, and I will never get that back," the 14-year-old told the court in 1997.
"He needs to understand how bad he has hurt his whole family," the 16-year-old recounted. "My life will never be the same. I wish I could have a different one."
The girl was racked with guilt.
"I feel like I could have done something more," she told a probation officer. "I feel like if I'd only been strong enough to tell somebody how embarrassing it was. . . . Coming forward may have prevented this."
As is common in incest cases, the girl began displaying behavior similar to Jeremiah's. She offered to have sex with her stepbrother and admitted molesting one of her younger brothers.
That boy later told Lyle Jessop that he, and yet another brother, both under 10, had also been molested by Jeremiah.
The sexual entanglements appear to extend even further. Court records show that the mother, Sirrene, stated that her younger brothers living in another house were involved with her younger sisters in an "inappropriate way."
Despite the court receiving additional allegations of sexual misconduct before Jeremiah entered his guilty plea, there is no record that additional charges were filed against him or the 16-year-old girl. There also is no record of any police investigation or charges related to Sirrene's allegation concerning her brothers.
While Jeremiah's sisters were struggling to recover, Jeremiah displayed a "nonchalant manner" during his probation evaluation that was "very disturbing" considering the gravity of the crimes, Mohave County chief probation officer Rod L. Marquardt stated in a report.
Despite Jeremiah's showing "no remorse" according to Marquardt, Mohave County Attorney Ekstrom allowed him to plead guilty to just one count of sexual conduct with a minor. Once again, rather than giving Jeremiah the lengthy state prison term suggested under state sentencing guidelines, a Mohave County Superior Court judge sentenced him to just 10 months in county jail and five years' probation.
Marquardt believes that Jeremiah's attitude could have stemmed from what he learned from his father, Lavar Johnson, who died in the early 1990s.
In 1981, Lavar raped a stepdaughter, sources close to the victim say, was convicted of sexually abusing her and later served three years' probation. Additional details are unavailable because case records have been inexplicably purged from Mohave County files, Marquardt says.