Oct 2, 2015

Kids from polygamous sect say they harvested pecans for years at leader's orders

October 1, 2015
Salt Lake Tribune
Nate Carlisle

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A man walks a row of pecan trees at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch near Hurricane in September 2000.
FLDS and the company have been fined by the government.

When it was time to pick nuts at a ranch near Hurricane, a bishop in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would hand out the assignment as a church work project and make young children work — even when they had nut allergies — according to a new affidavit.

A company located on FLDS property held the contract to perform the harvest. The man who owns that company, Brian Jessop, isn't just anybody in the FLDS.

Jessop, according to Alyssa Bistline, works closely with FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs. A U.S. Department of Labor court filing says the agency believes Jessop is head of church security.

Bistline's affidavit is among the new documents filed in the Labor Department case against Paragon Contractors. The Labor Department contends that Paragon — the company court documents say resides on FLDS property — used children and unpaid labor during harvests at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch near Hurricane.

The case began when CNN aired video of children working at the ranch in 2012, but the Labor Department contends that kids worked there for years.

Bistline, 21, says in her affidavit that she began working at the ranch harvests at age 13.

"For five years, I was part of the main crew," Bistline's affidavit says, "and along with other girls would work every day in the sorting shed, where we would sort, hull and bag and nuts. I also sometimes helped the crews on the ground, pruning and picking up nuts.

"When working in the sorting shed, we began work at 7 or 8 a.m. and worked until around 10 p.m. During the 2012 summer, there were five to 10 other girls working with me between the ages of 12 and 20."

Jeffs, the brother of imprisoned FLDS President Warren Jeffs, handed out the ranch assignments, Bistline says.

Bistline says she also worked in the office for Paragon. She describes how Paragon would collect sign-in sheets of who worked at the ranch that day and file the sheets with the office.

That could be an important detail. Paragon's officers have refused to disclose employment records from the harvests or have claimed there are no records, according to court filings.

"… I was instructed by Brian Jessop and my step-father, James Jessop, that if anyone ever asked me if Paragon is associated with the nut harvest to say no and pretend I didn't know anything," Bistline says.

Bistline says she left the FLDS in 2014.

The new court filings have affidavits from other people — some of them still minors — who say they or their family worked at the ranch. One girl who is now 14 says she worked at the ranch when she was 10 to 12 years old. Even girls with nut allergies had to work, the girl says.

"And they were told to keep picking nuts until it gets bad enough that you can't work anymore and then maybe you can help with bagging nuts," she says in her affidavit.

An 11-year-old girl described the working conditions at the ranch when she worked there. She was 7 and 8 years old at the time.

"… In November and December, it was really cold and sometimes there were lots of people clogging up the restrooms just trying to get warm," her affidavit says. "It kept a line going for hours. A lot of people were getting sick because the ground was always damp and people were crawling over the ground, picking up nuts."

A boy who is now 9 years old submitted a brief affidavit. It says he worked at the ranch when he was 6.


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