Prophet and loss

Can she help heal the town his sect ruled for gen­er­a­tions?

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Re­port by Alex Han­naford. Pho­to­graphs by Rachel As­ton

How a US city is slowly open­ing up since a Mor­mon cult loos­ened its grip

Briell Decker care­fully re­moved the screws from the cor­ners of the win­dow and be­gan pound­ing on the glass un­til it started to come loose. Hear­ing the noise, her sis­ter-in-law, who had been in the lounge area of their trailer home, came in and took the screw­driver away. But it was too late: Decker had al­ready un­screwed one side of the pane; as soon as she was alone again, she opened the win­dow, climbed out into the street and ran away. She was es­cap­ing her brother, his wife, and the fun­da­men­tal­ist Mor­mon cult they all be­longed to. Decker had been forced to marry its leader, War­ren Jeffs, aged 18.

Six years later, Decker sits on the back porch of the $1.2m man­sion where she once lived with Jeffs. “I knew I wasn’t go­ing to give up, whether I made it out or not,” she says of her escape. “Noth­ing was go­ing to stop me.”

Ev­ery­thing has changed since then. Jeffs is seven years into a life sen­tence for sex­ual as­sault. Decker has made a life for her­self, and re­cently re­mar­ried. The town in which she lives has started to open it­self up to peo­ple out­side the cult for the first time in 90 years, and to wel­come back ex­com­mu­ni­cated mem­bers.

For three gen­er­a­tions, the twin cities of Hil­dale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ari­zona – col­lec­tively known as Short Creek – have been home to the Fun­da­men­tal­ist Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, bet­ter known as FLDS, a re­li­gious sect that split from the Mor­mon church in 1930; its mem­bers wanted to con­tinue to prac­tise polygamy. The church teaches that hav­ing mul­ti­ple wives (each of whom is as­signed to a man) is or­dained by God. Women wear long-sleeved prairie dresses that stretch down to the an­kles, and pin their hair in a bun.

Now the walls around Short Creek’s houses, real and fig­u­ra­tive, are com­ing down. Decker has turned the 44-room man­sion where Jeffs and his wives lived into a refuge for other women flee­ing the same church. “Even though it was his house, it feels good,” she says.

Jeffs, a tall, slim man with dark eyes, has been pres­i­dent and prophet of FLDS since 2002, con­tin­u­ing to run the cult from his prison cell. Soon af­ter he as­sumed the lead­er­ship, he be­gan split­ting fam­i­lies apart, tak­ing young girls as his own brides, and ex­com­mu­ni­cat­ing mem­bers, mainly young men, from the church. He banned so­cial­is­ing, as well as contact with the out­side world. In 2011, he be­gan a life sen­tence for sex­u­ally as­sault­ing two girls aged 12 and 14, whom he de­scribed as his “spir­i­tual wives”. Jeffs, now 62, has wed around 80 women and chil­dren over the years, though the state doesn’t recog­nise these mar­riages. Decker was wife num­ber 65.

It has taken a long time for change to come to Short Creek, as the com­mu­nity starts to reckon with its leader’s le­gacy. There are still about 10,000 ac­tive mem­bers of the church in the re­gion, most of them in Short Creek. But there are signs that oth­ers have moved on: last Novem­ber, Hil­dale elected its first ever fe­male, non-FLDS, mayor. A few months ago, a new po­lice chief – an out­sider with no ties to the com­mu­nity – was sworn in af­ter a jury ruled that the pre­vi­ous force, made up en­tirely of church mem­bers, was guilty of re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion. The town has opened its first bar. And the refuge that Decker helped cre­ate, and which opened last year, is help­ing more and more women like her.

Born Lynette Warner, Decker grew up in an FLDS com­pound in Sandy, Utah; she says she was al­ways aware she was be­ing groomed to marry Jeffs. Her older sis­ter Colleen had al­ready been forced to marry Jeffs’ father, Ru­lon, when he was in his 80s and she was 18; Colleen then mar­ried Jeffs when Ru­lon died. Decker, softly spo­ken and shy, doesn’t re­mem­ber much about her own wed­ding day. “I was ter­ri­fied,” she says. “We had our cer­e­mony and he asked me to come and sit on his lap. I just went foggy and didn’t re­spond.”

She says they never con­sum­mated the mar­riage, but that Jeffs gave her “some bad train­ings”, an FLDS eu­phemism for teach­ing scrip­ture, but of­ten in­clud­ing sex­ual acts that Jeffs claimed were or­dained by God. When chill­ing au­dio tapes of him teach­ing his wives how to please him sex­u­ally were en­tered into ev­i­dence dur­ing his trial, he re­ferred to them as “heav­enly train­ings”.

Decker still uses phrases from her days in the FLDS: a “re­pen­tance mis­sion” is a tem­po­rary ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. She picks her words care­fully when talk­ing about Jeffs. She refers to him as her ex-hus­band, but says that, look­ing back, she re­alises he was “creepy”. “When War­ren was around, I’d go into hid­ing,” she says. “If I didn’t, I’d have to be part of the tem­ple stuff that he was do­ing.” Does she mean sex acts? I ask. “Yes,” she says.

Jeffs went on the run in 2005 af­ter be­ing in­dicted by an Ari­zona jury – ini­tially, for forc­ing a 16-year-old girl to marry a 28-year-old man who was al­ready mar­ried. The FBI charged him with un­law­ful flight and added him to their most-wanted list. Fi­nally, in Au­gust 2006, Jeffs was stopped by po­lice, driv­ing a red Cadil­lac SUV near Las Ve­gas. They found four com­put­ers, 16 mo­bile phones, three wigs, a dozen pairs of sun­glasses, and more than $55,000 in cash in his car. Af­ter a raid on one of his com­pounds, they dis­cov­ered he had also taken child brides. Af­ter a lengthy le­gal process, he was sen­tenced to life plus 20 years, but con­tin­ued to dic­tate fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions and church ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tions from prison – among other things, forc­ing Decker to live with her brother.

At the time of Jeffs’ ar­rest, a fi­nan­cial trust the FLDS had es­tab­lished to share its mem­bers’ as­sets was val­ued at well over $100m, and owned most of the homes and build­ings in Short Creek. But in 2005, the state of Utah seized con­trol and be­gan leas­ing houses to former mem­bers, in ex­change for $100 (£77) a month to a com­mu­nal fund. Decker asked this trust if she could buy Jeffs’ man­sion, ex­plain­ing she hoped to turn it into a place of heal­ing. The state gave her a dis­count of $800,000, which meant she had to find the re­main­ing $400,000. En­ter The Dream Cen­ter, a faith-based char­ity in Los An­ge­les, which helps the home­less, at-risk young peo­ple, ad­dicts and strug­gling fam­i­lies, who agreed to man­age the man­sion as a refuge.

Since it opened a year ago, the refuge has pro­vided meals and safety for women es­cap­ing the FLDS with their chil­dren, as well as peo­ple from nearby towns strug­gling with ad­dic­tion or men­tal health is­sues. Some weeks, they’ve seen 150 former church mem­bers at­tend their weekly potluck din­ner. →

‘When War­ren was around I’d go into hid­ing,’ Decker says. ‘ If I didn’t, I’d have to be part of the tem­ple stuff he was do­ing.’ Does she mean sex acts? ‘Yes’

One of the women re­ly­ing on the refuge, who agrees to talk to me is “Beth” (not her real name), a mother of 15 and former FLDS mem­ber. She is in her late 40s and still wears her hair in the tra­di­tional FLDS bun. As we talk about her life in the church, she al­ter­nates be­tween laugh­ter and tears. She en­tered into a plu­ral mar­riage when she was 20, she says, the sec­ond of four wives. Her el­dest child is now in her late 20s; her youngest is seven.

In the begin­ning, things weren’t too bad. “My grand­mother was ac­tu­ally one of the very first set­tlers in Short Creek. They were mem­bers of the Lat­ter-day Saints church, orig­i­nally. But when it chose to out­law polygamy, my grand­par­ents re­fused to give up their plu­ral fam­i­lies. The church ex­com­mu­ni­cated them and that was the begin­ning of the FLDS.” Unlike many in the church, Beth went to col­lege and got a job as a medic in Short Creek’s ma­ter­nity clinic.

A few years ago, she was called to see the bishop of the FLDS, who told her he’d had a rev­e­la­tion from Jeffs in prison. Beth, he said, had com­mit­ted the sin of abortion and she was to have noth­ing to do with “priest­hood peo­ple” again. She was to go on a “re­pen­tance mis­sion”, away from Short Creek – which Beth knew meant she would never be al­lowed back. She would have to leave her chil­dren be­hind, to be cared for by other church mem­bers. “I told him it wasn’t true, but he told me not to ques­tion the prophet,” she says. “I just went home and told my daugh­ters I had to leave. Ev­ery­body was weep­ing like there had been a death.”

Her chil­dren helped pack her bags. “I left re­ally late at night af­ter my youngest were in bed. I kissed all my lit­tle guys, told them, ‘I’ll be gone for a while’, but said I’d be right back. All my big girls sat on the porch weep­ing their eyes out.”

Her father had been ousted from the church 15 years be­fore; her brother more re­cently. To­gether they found her an apart­ment nearby, but for the first month Beth hardly left her bed­room. All contact with her chil­dren was for­bid­den. Slowly, she started in­te­grat­ing into so­ci­ety, get­ting a job as a ho­tel maid. Then she got a let­ter from the lo­cal hos­pi­tal re­fer­ring to her youngest child’s re­cent emer­gency visit. She called the only num­ber she had for her fam­ily – her step­son’s. He told her that her son had fallen and bro­ken his arm, but that he was fine. When she called the num­ber again, it had been dis­con­nected.

There comes a point, Beth tells me, when the pain be­comes greater than the fear. She hired a lawyer and planned to file kid­nap­ping charges, driv­ing to Short Creek in a mo­torhome in the hope that she’d be able to bring her chil­dren back. “At the gate of the house, I saw my el­dest daugh­ter stand­ing there with my two lit­tle boys, and I yelled at her to come and talk to me. But she just turned around and ran back in the house with them.”

Later that day, her at­tor­ney filed kid­nap­ping charges, and po­lice were sent to re­trieve the chil­dren. Beth says they had to carry seven of them – one girl and six boys, the only ones un­der 18 – kick­ing and scream­ing to her. “That first year was ab­so­lutely hell,” she says. “They threat­ened to run away, but they knew the po­lice would come af­ter them. My daugh­ter treated me like dirt. She was the el­dest of the chil­dren who came home and al­most a year to the day, just af­ter she turned 18, I came back from work and she was gone – back to the church.”

July this year marked six years since Beth was forced out. “I still have five chil­dren in the church,” she says. But those who still live with her have be­gun to adapt to life on the out­side. They are all in school. They love play­ing video games – “too much,” says Beth. “They’re an­gry. [The church] has changed them.” Still, none of them talks about go­ing back to the FLDS.

A year ago, she moved her fam­ily to Short Creek to take ad­van­tage of the houses avail­able for rent un­der the new trust plan. She pays the $100 a month lease, but isn’t work­ing at the mo­ment, and times are tough. She re­lies on food stamps and din­ners at the refuge.

I ask if she thinks the FLDS is break­ing apart. “Not fast enough,” she says. “Ev­ery­one tells me I’ll see my other kids again, but right now it’s too hard to think about.”

The new Short Creek refuge is run by Glyn and Jena Jones, a cou­ple from San Diego who came here two years ago with their teenage daugh­ter to as­sist a char­ity work­ing with former FLDS chil­dren. They show me around the 29,000 sq ft brick build­ing. Out­side, a tall chim­ney spells out “Pray and obey” in dark bricks; up­stairs, in the mid­dle of the house, is a large open space – for­merly the prayer room, Jena says, where Jeffs made women pray ev­ery hour, on the hour.

The bed­rooms are modest; in some, the car­pet creeps a few feet up the walls – ap­par­ently de­signed to deaden any noise. Down­stairs, at the front of the house, is an empty of­fice. It used to have a pull-down sin­gle bed, but it was ripped out a year ago when former FLDS mem­bers told the Jone­ses that Jeffs used to abuse them there. Next door is what looks like a stor­age closet, though a latch un­der a shelf at the back re­veals a hid­den room. It’s empty now, save for a thick metal safe on the floor in the cor­ner, its door ajar – most likely a hid­ing place for Jeffs while he was on the run.

A pic­ture of him with some of his wives sits on a shelf – a re­minder, Glyn says, “that no mat­ter how bad things were here, good can come of it. We can’t re­write his­tory, but look at the amaz­ing things that are hap­pen­ing now.” Each week, trauma coun­sel­lors drive up from Phoenix to give ther­apy ses­sions to res­i­dents.

“In the last month we’ve had four mums and their chil­dren stay here – one of them with 11 kids,” Glyn says. “Each of them walked out of the church and needed a place to land. We give them three meals a day, free ac­com­mo­da­tion and coun­selling.”

As a Chris­tian or­gan­i­sa­tion, they also have weekly chapel ser­vices, but Glyn says they try to broaden their reach so that ev­ery­one can re­late. “We don’t want to press our be­liefs or re­li­gion on these peo­ple. They’ve had that all their lives.”

Jena of­fers to give me a tour of Short Creek. There is a pe­cu­liar mix of houses – some large and well looked af­ter, oth­ers di­lap­i­dated. The main FLDS church is a huge, brick-built build­ing that mem­bers called

The Meet­ing House, which stretches an en­tire block. It’s still owned by →

Beth was sent on a ‘re­pen­tance mis­sion’, mean­ing she might never see her 15 chil­dren again. Months later, the po­lice carried seven of them back to her, kick­ing and scream­ing

the church, but hasn’t been used for two years; the gates are locked.

Jena takes a dirt track up the moun­tain and on to a ridge over­look­ing the town. We pull up next to a tall, cir­cu­lar grain store and she points towards the cliffs. “That was the FLDS’s cave,” she says. There used to be a lock on the door, but not to­day. Us­ing the lights on our mo­bile phones, Jena leads me down a dark pas­sage­way. At the end is a heavy, steel door with a bank-vault­style lock. The cave is lined with shelves still full of food: tins of spinach flakes (“life in­sur­ance in a can”, the la­bel reads), tomato crys­tals and ap­ple sauce, ready for the apoca­lypse that Jeffs reg­u­larly warned his fol­low­ers was just around the cor­ner.

It is dif­fi­cult to speak to cur­rent mem­bers of the FLDS church, but through an in­ter­me­di­ary I am told to go to a sin­gle-room prop­erty near the cen­tre of town, where I meet Es­ther (she won’t give her last name) and Glenn John­son. They claim that the town’s ex­com­mu­ni­cated mem­bers are mak­ing their life dif­fi­cult. Three years ago, Es­ther’s en­tire fam­ily lived in Short Creek, in­clud­ing her par­ents and 18 sib­lings. To­day, most are gone, dis­persed across the US af­ter be­ing evicted from their homes or leav­ing a com­mu­nity they no longer recog­nise. “My brother was evicted from the home we grew up in, and yet they’re sell­ing the nar­ra­tive that peo­ple are tak­ing back their homes, get­ting their town back. That’s not true,” she tells me.

Es­ther says that church mem­bers were once debt-free and helped build each other’s homes. When the state of Utah took over the church’s fi­nances, she says, many FLDS mem­bers had their homes re­pos­sessed. She hasn’t been evicted from her home – yet – but John­son has. He re­fused to give the $100 a month fee to the state, be­cause it was fund­ing lit­i­ga­tion against his own church: “Why would we want to con­tribute to that?” The land his grand­fa­ther bought in the 1940s has now been re­pos­sessed. “It’s like this,” he tells me, ex­plain­ing the state’s logic. “You re­ally like your car, right? Yeah well, you can keep your car if you give me $100 a month. Oth­er­wise I’m go­ing to take it away from you.” (Jeff Bar­low, who runs the state’s com­mu­nal fund, tells me that only those in ar­rears by more than three years face evic­tion, adding: “Our goal was to se­cure Glenn in that prop­erty for ever, but he chose not to pay his taxes for four years.”)

As a sin­gle mother whose youngest child is six, Es­ther says she doesn’t know where else she can go. She misses the com­mu­nity as it was. “But we’re never go­ing to have that back, be­cause they’re driv­ing us out. It’s re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion.” I ask whether they still con­sider War­ren Jeffs their prophet. “Yes,” they say in uni­son. “He was the prophet be­fore he went into prison and he’ll be the prophet when he comes out,” John­son adds.

Per­haps the most prom­i­nent face of change in Short Creek is the new mayor, Do­nia Jes­sop. Born into the church in 1970, she wants to see the town re­turn to the peace­ful, friendly place she says it once was. “I was born when Un­cle Roy was the prophet (Leroy John­son was pres­i­dent of the FLDS from 1949 un­til 1986) and it was a pretty great town – with dances, fairs and com­mu­nity get-to­geth­ers. When War­ren came into rule, it was com­plete anar­chy.”

Jes­sop and her hus­band were ex­com­mu­ni­cated by Jeffs in 2012; he or­dered their young daugh­ter to stay, but know­ing they would never see her again, they took her with them to a dif­fer­ent city in Utah.

Passionate about re­build­ing Short Creek, Jes­sop is a warm, friendly woman. She re­turned to Hil­dale in 2015, in­tent on mak­ing a home there with her fam­ily and re­con­nect­ing with the place she once loved. But she was spat at by mem­bers, and had things thrown at her in the street. “One time I drove to see my mother-in-law’s grave, and found my car sur­rounded by three trucks with blacked-out win­dows,” she says. “It was to in­tim­i­date me. But I re­fused to be in­tim­i­dated.”

In 2017, she be­gan to build a grass­roots coali­tion to chal­lenge FLDS mem­bers on the town coun­cil in the elec­tions. “I asked my best friend if I’d make a good mayor,” she says. “I had no idea what I was do­ing.” Her cam­paign signs were de­faced, but she per­sisted; by now, Jeffs’ im­pris­on­ment and a church in cri­sis meant FLDS mem­bers made up only 20% of the Hil­dale com­mu­nity. When Jes­sop was elected mayor, 10 male mem­bers of the town coun­cil re­signed in protest at a fe­male leader. But she’s un­de­terred: “I want to im­prove the roads and the in­fras­truc­ture, the sewer sys­tem, in­stall fi­bre op­tic,” she says over a beer at the Edge of the World brew­ery near the cen­tre of town – an es­tab­lish­ment that would have been un­think­able even a few years ago. It’s op­po­site the gas sta­tion build­ing which Jes­sop owns, and from which she runs a pop­u­lar cafe and con­ve­nience store; there’s no petrol yet, but this will hap­pen, she says. Jes­sop tells me there are al­ready four places to eat in Short Creek – “and I own one of them” – and 17 places to stay, from ho­tels to bed and break­fasts, which, she says, get booked solid dur­ing the sum­mer.

“I’m fo­cus­ing on open­ing up tourism here. We have glamp­ing sites in the shadow of the moun­tains, and we’re at the back side of Zion na­tional park, where there are amaz­ing trails that have al­ways been closed to the pub­lic.”

In a cave are shelves of food: spinach flakes, tomato crys­tals and ap­ple sauce, ready for the apoca­lypse that Jeffs warned his fol­low­ers was im­mi­nent Mayor Do­nia Jes­sop was born into the church but forced out in 2012. She wants to open the town up to tourism

Briell Decker be­lieves Short Creek can be­come a place of heal­ing; that, just as she did, the town can start again. “I missed so much valu­able time, but I’ve learned it’s not all bad. You take your ex­pe­ri­ences and do the best you can with them.”

Last sum­mer she mar­ried her boyfriend, Ste­van, who was never a mem­ber of the FLDS church, and the cou­ple have moved away. Her father has left the church and lives in Short Creek. Decker hasn’t spo­ken to her mother since her escape, but be­lieves she is still in the church.

She hopes her mother and other mem­bers will have the rev­e­la­tion she did. “One day,” she says con­fi­dently, “they’re go­ing to wake up and re­alise that what they be­lieved isn’t true.”

War­ren Jeffs mar­ried around 80 women and chil­dren; the 44-room man­sion he lived in has been turned into a refuge

Top: church mem­ber Glenn John­son has been evicted from his home. Above: FLDS-made prod­ucts in a Short Creek store

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