By Richard Jerome
June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

ON JUNE 9, THREE DAYS AFTER SHE WALKED OUT OF THE BESIEGED Freemen compound near Jordan, Mont., cosmetologist Gloria Ward was back home in Utah, gazing tearfully at photos of her daughters Courtnie, 10, and Jaylynn, 8. For more than a year, Ward, 35, had been on the run. Defying a court order not to leave the state with her children, she and her common-law husband, Elwin Ward, 55, had fled from Utah with the two girls, going first to Michigan, then to Montana and finally taking asylum last February on a foreclosed ranch occupied by the antigovernment Freemen. They were there, by chance, on March 25, when the heavily armed fringe group began its months-long standoff with the FBI.

The Wards finally emerged from the Freemen compound on June 6 after weeks of negotiation, having won a promise from Utah officials that the charges against them for fleeing the state would be dropped. But for Ward, victory was brief. After TV cameras recorded their departure from the Freemen ranch, she and her children boarded a plane to Salt Lake City. That flight, however, would carry them back to a bitter custody battle involving a gothic tale of multiple husbands, polygamous marriages, religious cultists and even charges of child rape.

When Ward left the Freemen compound June 6, she believed her daughters would be kept temporarily in the custody of her sister Lynn Nielsen, 54, and that she could visit them freely. Utah officials deny making any such promise. And in fact, as mother and daughters disembarked in Salt Lake City one day later, an FBI agent and a pair of state social workers escorted Courtnie and Jaylynn away. That day a court ordered the girls placed with Robert Gunn, Courtnie’s father, restricting Ward to supervised visits. “If I had known that this was going to happen, I would not have left the Freemen ranch,” Ward says now. “I would have stayed there because…I’d still be with my babies.”

Immediately she took her case to television, appearing on 60 Minutes, Dateline NBC and other programs, the very picture of anguished motherhood. But Ward could never be mistaken for June Cleaver. To begin with, she belongs to a small, cultish antigovernment group, composed mainly of excommunicated Mormons, known as the House of Chaney after their leader, John Perry Chaney, 39. Chaney says he simply preaches “faith, repentance and baptism.” But among other things, the group also believes that girls can wed as soon as they begin to menstruate. To that end, in a common-law ceremony in 1993, Chaney married off his own 13-year-old daughter to a 48-year-old follower. For that he now sits in the Utah county jail awaiting trial on rape conspiracy charges. Last year, Chaney himself married Ward’s oldest daughter, Ariel, now 15. Placed in foster care after Chaney’s arrest, Ariel gave birth to his son, Xavier, on June 6—the very day her mother left the Freemen ranch.

“You have a person here that you have to wonder about,” Reed Richards, of the Utah attorney general’s office, says of Ward. “First she takes the two kids and disappears. Then she allows them to associate with some underground, screwball cult group. She allows her daughter to marry the leader of the group and have his baby, and she turns up at the Freemen compound…. Now there’s a good mother.”

If Ward’s sense of family values seems skewed, it’s no surprise. She was born into a household of Mormon polygamists, though polygamy was outlawed in Utah a century ago. Her late father, David Darger, a miner, had five wives and 40 children, 11 of them with Georgine Lutz, mother of Ward and her sister Lynn Nielsen. “I never lacked for playmates, that’s for sure,” says Nielsen, a real estate agent. “But when I was growing up, polygamists were outcasts. When my friends’ families found out [about mine], kids couldn’t play with me anymore.” When she was 16, her father kept her out of high school and forced her to marry a 40-year-old man she barely knew. Less than a year later her new husband took a second wife—Nielsen’s 15-year-old sister.

“I didn’t like it at all when he married her,” Nielsen says. “But I didn’t have any choice.” Nielsen remained in the marriage for 19 years and had three children before finally divorcing. Against this polygamous backdrop, Gloria Ward grew up. By the time she was 6, her parents had split. According to another sister, Kris Lutz, 33, Ward dropped out of high school as a sophomore. “She wasn’t real popular and didn’t like it,” Lutz says. At 18 she married a man named Paul Christensen and later began working an assembly job at National Semiconductor Corp., outside Salt Lake City. There, 12 years ago, she met Robert Gunn. Her marriage ended, and with daughter Ariel to care for, she moved in with Gunn and became pregnant with Courtnie. After a year their relationship also dissolved. “I just got tired of her attitude, the way she acted toward me,” says Gunn, now 31 and a sheetrock worker. “So we broke up.”

From 1987 to 1994, Gloria was married to Steve Mangum, 44, a trucker, with whom she had Jaylynn. “She was just lively and fun to be with,” Mangum recalls. “And she was gorgeous.” After they divorced, she graduated from cosmetology school and began cutting hair at a local salon. Two years ago, at a Salt Lake City square dance, she met Elwin Ward, a self-described jack-of-all-trades. “The Lord pushed me,” he says, explaining why he proposed to her the night they met. “She wasn’t even my type at the time, because I’m a guy that likes women to be in shape and slim, and she was overweight.” That very night she agreed to marry him. “My whole family hates his guts,” says Nielsen of her brother-in-law. “He’s a very hypnotic person. He controls Gloria.”

Elwin introduced his wife to Chaney’s self-described “missionaries,” a roving band that was temporarily bedded down in Salt Lake City. Last summer, the group—including the Wards—settled in Battle Creek, Mich., Chaney’s hometown. The Wards were on the lam, having ignored a court order to stay in Utah with Courtnie and Jaylynn. Jaylynn’s father, Steve Mangum, had complained to authorities that the girls were not being raised properly. He was especially concerned about the Chaney group’s eccentric ways, including the penchant for exceedingly young brides. “The scriptures say you can get married at puberty,” says Chaney, who insists his group is not a cult. The jailed missionary did have some misgivings about tying the knot with Ward’s daughter Ariel, but not because of age. “I had intended to spend the rest of my life alone,” he says. “[But] her mother said she apparently fell in love with me…. I prayed to Heavenly Father and had a rush of love for Ariel. So I knew it was meant to be.” The couple were married in April 1995. And that sat perfectly well with Gloria Ward, who insists it was Ariel’s idea. “She came to me on several occasions and said, ‘Mom, isn’t he so neat? Mom, don’t you like him so much?’ ” Ward recalls. “One day she came up to me and said, ‘Mother, you know that I have been wanting to get married for a long time now, ever since I was 13.’ ” She was 14 at the time.

The Wards’ legal troubles only worsened in Michigan. In November 1995 an arrest warrant was issued for Gloria Ward, a contempt-of-court charge, after she failed to appear to provide evidence that her younger daughters were enrolled in public school or were being properly schooled at home. The Wards had disappeared, eventually surfacing in Montana at the Freemen compound. “We didn’t know anybody there,” says Elwin Ward. “We just knew they had a common-law court. And we knew that the only justice we were going to receive was through the common law.” Ward insists that even with the place surrounded by G-men, “it was sort of like camping, like a vacation.” But Nielsen, who went to the ranch three times while trying to convince her younger sister to leave, was unnerved by the sight of Freemen wearing sidearms and toting rifles as they roamed the grounds. “It was as close to hell as I hope to get,” she says.

On May 15, Utah District Judge Frank G. Noel ordered Courtnie and Jaylynn placed temporarily with Nielsen. On June 7 the judge revised his decision, awarding them to Robert Gunn and his wife, Valerie. During the course of the siege, Gunn and Mangum had agreed that Gunn, for the present, would take care of their two daughters. “I’m a single truck driver who travels a lot,” Mangum says. “It would be hard for me to have custody anyway. I can see Jaylynn all I like.”

The first thing Gunn did after the custody hearing was take the girls to Wendy’s for hamburgers and fries. “Then we stopped to buy swimming suits,” he says. In the fall, Courtnie and Jaylynn will enter public school. Says Gunn: “They have a lot of catching up to do.”

RICHARD JEROME

CATHY FREE in Salt Lake City and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Battle Creek