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September 16, 2014

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Polygamy refugee steps into storm over church

Henderson woman tells of abuse, becomes vocal critic of the sect

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Leila Navidi

Kathleen Mackert, who in 1986 left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hopes telling her story will help in an effort to create a federal task force to investigate polygamy-related crime.

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Family pictures provided by Kathleen Mackert: On top, four of Clyde Mackert's wives stand in the kitchen. At left, a portrait of part of the Mackert clan. At right, Kathleen Mackert poses in a red dress -- before the sect leader declared that the color red could not be worn.

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  • Kathleen Mackert, now an adult, was raised in a polygamist family and describes the dynamics of family life in a polygamist household.
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  • Mackert talks about the circumstances surrounding her attempted suicide when she was six-years-old.
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  • Mackert discusses her mother's reaction to her attempted suicide and the events that occurred following it.
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Clyde Mackert and his wives must have put on their best faces for the flashbulb. This was Life magazine, after all, coming to photograph them canning corn, and singing hymns, and scrambling eggs for breakfast, and all they had to do was show the world polygamy isn’t bad.

Show the world, in five thin pages of the September 1953 magazine, that Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle was wrong to raid the homes of FLDS faithful in Short Creek, Ariz., wrong to take women and children by the busload, wrong to say the polygamist sect was “dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child ... should be forced into multiple wifehood with men of all ages.”

For this small act of public relations, for baring his family’s fundamentalist teeth to the magazine-reading world some 55 years ago, the husband to three and father of 27 was knighted a hero, one of Clyde Mackert’s daughters says.

Two months ago, that hero’s sacrifice came full circle and collapsed. That same daughter, Kathleen Mackert, not even born when Life magazine photographed her family, suddenly found herself on the national news, a bobbing head in box, talking about how polygamy and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were everything Pyle alleged and more.

Tuesday, an architect of the misery that Mackert says FLDS children suffer was holed up in a Las Vegas hospital, with guards outside his room and the world trying to look in. The latest development in the calamity of press that has hounded the polygamist church since its leader, Warren Jeffs, was caught just north of Las Vegas two years ago. The fact that he was nabbed outside the city Mackert fled to — and later brought right back to a local hospital when he got sick — served as reminders to Mackert that there’s no hiding from what happened to her.

So, she’s hiding no more. After years of silence, she’s talking.

“It’s almost like I can’t get rid of (Jeffs) until it gets set right,” she said, “and its not going to get set right until somebody does something, not just about him, but something to help the kids.”

So another raid, this one of the FLDS compound in Texas, Jeffs’ return to Vegas, and another Mackert in the spotlight with a story to sell. Though far from canning corn with a smile, this Mackert is pitching a message about her childhood and church: “I spent most of my life as a sex slave.”

Although her father’s magazine debut made it seem the children of Short Creek should stay with their parents, Mackert’s media appearances after the April raid of Yearning for Zion Ranch came with a different message: Get those girls out of Texas. She should know. She was one once — an FLDS teenager with plaited hair and prairie dresses — helpless then as she feels now.

Hundreds of children were taken from the Texas FLDS compound in April only to be returned to their parents in June, after the Texas courts ruled they faced no imminent threat at the ranch.

Mackert says the courts got it wrong.

“I believe (FLDS) children are being abused. I have no doubt of it. And I do believe there are women who don’t want to be forced to marry someone they don’t know or love. And I do believe there are children who want to be rescued,” Mackert said, sitting in a clean and well-chilled Henderson apartment that is hers alone.

If the FLDS church isn’t winning the battle for autonomy in Texas, it seems to be winning the war of public opinion ­— an article published in the Deseret News last month revealed that half of the Utahns polled by the paper disagree with the Texas authorities’ decision to take the children.

Clyde Mackert would be happy. Kathleen Mackert is horrified, and ready for the phone to ring.

“I’m not going to stop talking about this until either the problem is solved or the day I die.”

•••

In the weeks after the April 3 raid on the Texas ranch, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasted authorities in Arizona and Utah for being afraid to do anything about FLDS crimes in their states. At least, afraid to do anything since Short Creek, which was seen at the time as a wild assault on religious freedom.

“To have what goes on in Arizona and in Utah go on year after year and people turn a blind eye to it,” Reid said during a radio interview, “I think it is a travesty.”

Reid was quickly scolded by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who told him to get educated before he “opens his trap.” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard called it “ignorant posturing.”

Mackert called it dead accurate and was thrilled to learn Reid had phoned U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to say something he has said before: We need a federal task force to investigate polygamy-related crime.

Mackert remembers her home as very different from what the frozen photos in Life suggest. The house churned with constant panic. Her father, she says, would slip into the sisters’ shared bedroom and molest them. Her mothers — first there were just three, and then a fourth joined — would wage polite war over petty jealousies.

From the pulpit, church leaders preached beating children “nye unto death for direct disobedience,” she recalls.

Then there was the fear being “poofed.” That’s what the Mackert girls called it, after an older man who married one teenage sister and — poof — took her away without warning. That disappearance, paired with the constant talk of a woman’s duty to reproduce and the sexual abuse, hovered over Mackert like a monster.

“I used to have nightmares of being in heaven and being strapped to a breeding stall ... and just repeatedly being impregnated and having babies,” she said. “I would wake up in a cold, horrified sweat.”

Mackert resolved to make it out alive, which she accomplished by becoming emotionally dead. This went on until just before her 18th birthday, in 1975, when she was called to her father’s den in the middle of the night. Waiting there were all four wives and her father, with a revelation from then-prophet Leroy Johnson: Mackert had to marry her stepbrother. She was happy — she knew who he was.

The couple was given special permission to live away from the rest of the FLDS faithful so Mackert’s husband could work. While separated from her family, Mackert had four children. In photos from this period, the young mother is wearing conservative church clothing, the homemade dresses with leg o’ mutton sleeves and ankle-length modesty. It went on this way for more than a decade.

So who would have thought that Mackert would wind up wearing next to nothing, as a stripper in Vegas.

Mackert and her husband left the church in 1986. The mother, then 29, convinced her husband it was better to leave than to let church authorities assign their oldest daughter, then 9, to any husband they chose. They became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which worked until 1989, when Mackert realized she needed to break away again, this time from her husband. It’s not that she didn’t like him, she just didn’t love him. It happens, she says, when marriages are arranged for teenagers.

After a few years of dead-end jobs that didn’t support her four kids, a boyfriend suggested stripping. Mackert took off her clothes one night on the stage of a club in Ogden, Utah, and made a month’s salary. She danced in Utah until 1992, when she moved to Vegas for more of the same, at Cheetah’s.

She felt powerful stripping, in control of a sexual situation for once, until, all of a sudden, it stopped feeling good. It was no longer possible, she said, to ignore how dancing bent back to her childhood.

“It was reliving the abuse and trying to change the outcome,” she said. She quit, and became a bartender. She’s been one ever since.

•••

The question of a federal polygamy task force came up again in June, when Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto discussed the issue with her counterparts from Utah and Arizona. But Reid wasn’t there, and the meeting ended where it started: With no plans to launch a task force.

Shortly thereafter, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Salt Lake Tribune he wasn’t sure a task force was necessary.

Mackert hasn’t given up hope. She’s trying to rally Reid. She called his office to share her support, and was told to write a letter instead. So she wrote an e-mail, praising him for chastising politicians she feels have ignored decades of sex crimes and child abuse in the FLDS communities.

She got a reply, too: a form letter, addressing the issue of immigration. A mistake.

Reid’s representatives assure that the majority leader is still an advocate of the task force, but to any outsider looking in, the issue seems dead. In Texas, child welfare authorities almost have egg on their faces, though they insist they uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse and forced marriages. Meanwhile, the state is figuring out how to pay for the fiasco, which cost millions, and is far from over.

Mackert now feels the responsibility falls on her, and her siblings, almost all of whom have left the FLDS. Two of her sisters, Rena and Mary, are also speaking about their childhoods. Together, the three are part of a shrill chorus — former FLDS members who detail the ills of the church to whoever will listen, hoping they can get somebody to care. Or at least see beyond the titillating stories of sex with children and a “prophet” who went from church-supported fugitive to ailing jailbird. Trying to help comes at a cost, however. Some of the sisters have gotten death threats, Mackert says.

Still, Mackert hopes, maybe this latest development, a sick prophet, convicted of being an accomplice to rape, and facing additional charges related to arranging marriages between girls and men, will stay in the news for a while.

And maybe Mackert, a grandmother now, will be called onto the airwaves again, to continue what’s become a sort of family tradition: Talking about the FLDS church, no matter how much the Mackert message has changed in the past 50 years.

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