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The Forest Hidden Behind the Canyons

In the valley that spans the Utah-Arizona border, twin cities, born of the Latter-day Saints church’s foundations, are rebuilding themselves after years of abuse, corruption, and manipulation—while holding firm to core beliefs. Their progress tells us a lot about community, and the state of plural marriage, in modern America.

John W. Tomac

Most of the guests staying at the Hildale, Utah, bed-and-breakfast known as Zion’s Most Wanted Hotel are just looking for a comfortable place to stay while visiting the nearby national parks. The B&B resembles a budget hotel with its covered driveway and vestibule housing an office at the entrance. But it’s hidden by a concrete wall so imposing that two tall people standing on each other’s shoulders would have trouble scaling it. The wall is topped with another foot of metal spikes.

Reviewers on TripAdvisor talk about the big beds and walk-in closets, the wealth of parking spaces, and the friendly staff. A few mention the B&B’s “unique history.” One reviewer suggests future visitors do some Googling before their stay, noting that “Most Wanted” does not, in fact, refer to its being the best lodging near Zion National Park. (Though, he adds, it’s a good place to stay, too.)

Hildale has been making efforts to welcome tourists, and the B&B, like the rest of the town, seems to be on the upswing. But when I visited in 2017, the establishment, then known as America’s Most Wanted, was struggling. The hotel could go weeks without a guest. There was talk of closing it down back then, but it was difficult to imagine an alternate use for the sprawling, unusually designed building. “Homes from a family in the community are totally different from this,” explains George Jessop, an appliance store owner who managed the B&B for two years. “This place was built for the wrong reasons.” He knows the building’s history intimately, even helping craft the exterior masonry when it was constructed.

“I’m just going to be straight up—this was basically going to be Warren’s little whorehouse.”

“Warren” is Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—a polygamous Mormon denomination based in the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, collectively known as Short Creek. In 2006, Jeffs—who faced charges of sexual assault of a minor, rape, and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution—was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. He was arrested a few months later in Nevada when he was pulled over in a red Escalade that contained 14 cellphones, two wigs—one blond, one brunette—and 27 stacks of cash, totaling $67,500.

Jeffs was tried and convicted in Utah in 2007, but the conviction was later reversed and he was subject to a retrial due to a court error. In 2011, the same year Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years for aggravated sexual assault in Texas, he instructed his followers to build an elaborate mansion for his impending return. His followers did so at a frenzied pace: It was completed in less than 60 days. When he didn’t return, the building sat empty until it became a hotel in 2014.

Short Creek was founded in 1913 as a haven from the law where people could have plural families—the multiple households of men who have two or more concurrent marriages—without hiding them across different houses and towns. This is not a place where elementary school teachers would ask students to draw their family tree. There are no family trees. People have family jungles. Sometimes men have taken pairs or trios of sisters into their home as multiple wives; some widowed women have remarried a sibling of their late husband and had children who are both cousins and half-siblings. Sharing the same last name might mean someone is a full-sibling or a niece, or that they shared a grandfather several generations ago. At one point during my visit, I asked someone in the Creek who he considered part of his “immediate family” and got a blank stare. There are no half- or stepsiblings. Everyone is seemingly related in an endless tangle.

A group of men called the priesthood council once led the town; according to residents still living there today, the Creek was a place full of happy families that just happened to practice plural marriage. But there were rifts after their deaths, and, rather than finding new members, the council was overhauled. In the 1980s, there was a schism over whether the council would allow one man, Rulon Jeffs, to rule. In protest, some men started the new community of Centennial Park, just down the road.

After Rulon’s death in 2002, his son Warren took control. During the four years the younger Jeffs played at being the prophet, he made the town unrecognizable, using fear of outside prosecution for plural marriage and the United Effort Plan, a religious trust that owned the town and its utilities, to take total control of his followers’ lives, bank accounts, and Short Creek itself.

George Jessop, the B&B manager, always assumes that anyone coming to Short Creek knows the story of the community, even though it’s not explicitly mentioned on the inn’s listing page. A couple visiting from overseas once checked in, and he welcomed them with a story about Jeffs and the town and speculation about what exactly each room was meant to be used for. “I went on about all that stuff and found out that they just packed up their stuff and left—didn’t even stay,” George says. “They didn’t realize they’d come to this haunted place.” He gives a dry laugh. George has been talking to outsiders for only a few years now and still isn’t sure how to portion out the truth.

Warren Jeffs Attends Court Hearing In Nevada
Warren Jeffs
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A few doors down, there’s a recording studio where Jeffs would record his teachings for posterity. Sometimes these lessons were on subjects like how people with dark skin are representations of the devil on earth, prompting the Southern Poverty Law Center to label the FLDS a hate group. Jeffs liked to hear himself speak, and his voice on those recordings is low and foreboding, like he’s telling scary stories around a campfire. In one, he can be heard raping his 12-year-old bride while other sister-wives are present in the same room—what he refers to as “heavenly sessions.” Of the 20-minute, 29-second tape transcript, more than eight minutes are described as “heavy breathing.” In another, he orders that the wives of the prophet must follow “the ordinance of heavenly comfort.” Jeffs says, “You have to know how to excite sexually and be excited. … The lord intended that my ladies, all of my ladies, be trained.”

As the FLDS prophet, Jeffs decreed that sons be left by the side of the road to fend for themselves; their 12-year-old girls were to be married off to men old enough to be their grandfathers. As an outsider, the depravity of the history seems obvious. Why had it been so hard to see that Jeffs was a predator and a megalomaniac and a religious hypocrite in the moment? The answer is short. In their faith, no one questions the prophet. Authority figures are respected and followed uncritically, whether it’s a leader in the church or the family’s leader, a husband. George and his wife removed their children from school because the prophet told him to. It was a decade before their kids returned to a standard education system. “It changed their lives forever,” he says.

George left the FLDS in 2012 and described Hildale and Colorado City as being “a ghost town” then—eerie, without cars or people. Then the people who Warren Jeffs chased away began to come back. After Thanksgiving Day 2018, George posted on social media: “I drive down the road and there are many homes surrounded with many cars, families returning, restoring the traditions we once enjoyed.” He adds, “Nothing makes my heart sing more than seeing this.”

It’s been a long time coming, but change hasn’t come without reckoning. George is open about his family and his regrets and the way Jeffs manipulated them all. But it’s all with the benefit of hindsight. “You know, I didn’t see or notice until after,” he says. “It’s like when you’re in the forest, all you can see is a few trees. You can’t see the whole forest until you get way back, then, all the sudden, it’s like, ‘That’s a big forest.’”

When I visited in 2017, Jeffs had been in prison for a decade; he is eligible for parole in 2038. Yet there were signs that the FLDS was still waiting for word from their prophet. It’s not clear how many of the faithful, as they’re known, are actually left in Short Creek—some of the ex-communicated members may not call themselves FLDS but continue to follow Jeffs’s teachings in hopes of landing in their prophet’s good graces. But it’s easy to guess someone’s beliefs by their clothing. Women still wear pastel-colored prairie dresses and keep their long hair swept up into elaborate poofs. In Centennial Park, the neighboring community of non-FLDS plural-marriage-practicing people who broke off from Short Creek decades ago, there’s a lot of layering. Short-sleeve shirts are put over long sleeves to cover up a shirt that might have shown some cleavage; brightly colored summer dresses are worn with cotton long-sleeved shirts underneath. But it’s the ex-FLDS who stand out with their modern clothing—teens with piercings and brightly dyed hair, women who wear tank tops that leave much of their skin exposed.

Even without the dress codes, Short Creek seems divided. Many homes are surrounded by walls made from stone, concrete, or corrugated metal. Some are low enough to catch a glimpse of the sprawling house behind it; others stretch 10 or 12 feet high. Each one is more like a fortress than a neighborhood fence. These walls are gradually coming down, but it’s a slow process.

On one side of the cultural divide is the FLDS, which refuses to pay taxes to the new city governments. On the other, those who put up diminutive for-sale signs on property in a town where homes had never been purchased before—only assigned along with wives and entire families. When the first of the realtor signs were posted, resident Terrill Musser recalls walking over to one to take a photo. It was the first he’d seen in the town in his entire life.

Terrill is a former member of the FLDS who left, returned, and is now spearheading the effort to revitalize Short Creek and wipe the stains of Warren Jeffs off the community for good. Terrill is sitting in his home office when I arrive, tucked behind a desk that takes up most of the room. Most of its surface is covered in rocks. It’s a hobby of his, collecting rocks, though it isn’t as though Terrill is lacking for things to do. For the past few years, he’s been working election campaigns and bringing back events that had been canceled under Jeffs, like Christmas and July Fourth celebrations.

Terrill, 34, is also sick, identifying himself as fully disabled, with cancer and other ailments that make it hard to get out of bed some days. But when he has even an ounce of energy, he pours it back into the Creek. Terrill isn’t the first person to have hometown pride, but he’s the rare individual who would do so much for a town that told him to never come back. He left home in 2003 at the age of 18, having lived in this sheltered community his whole life. “Being bad” as a teenager meant Terrill and his friends would get a generator and a TV and haul them into the desert so they could watch cartoons. He’d never had a bank account or applied for a job. Terrill had been taught never to trust the government or outsiders, yet he left rather than swear allegiance to Warren Jeffs. Terrill was cut off from his siblings, his mother, his father. “My dad was like, ‘You’d be better off to die out here. Now you’re damned forever,’” he recalls in an even tone. Terrill didn’t talk to his father for more than 12 years, though they’ve since reconciled; his mother and many of his siblings, who remain in the FLDS and are essentially his neighbors, still don’t speak to him.

But he says fixing the Creek is his calling. In 2014, he was living in a garage with his wife and children in St. George, Utah; he was going through chemotherapy, and his wife decided to lift her husband’s spirits by bringing him on a drive back through town. One house, which, by happenstance, his wife’s grandfather had built by hand before Terrill’s grandfather moved into it in 1987, was sitting empty.

The Mussers went to the United Effort Plan trust and applied for the house. The UEP was the FLDS religious trust that, for many years, owned all the properties in the Creek. It was based on the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints concept of the “United Order,” which was meant to create an egalitarian society by redistributing wealth and property to those who need it. Until Jeffs went to prison, families tithed a percentage of their income to the church—a system that worked better when those in charge reinvested that income into the town. Under Jeffs, the UEP became a tool for control. Dissenters’ utilities were shut off, then they were evicted, and all the money they’d given to the church over their lifetime was suddenly off limits, leaving them with nothing to use to start over.

Short Creek was a modern-day fiefdom. “You had your king, your lords, ladies, your peasants and workers,” Terrill says. “The workers built the whole town but got very little back.” Under Jeffs, the inequality got even worse as a once-vibrant community was suddenly forbidden to do anything but worship. Kids’ toys were outlawed. Young boys were kicked out for minor infractions and left by the side of the road, leaving more women for the men in charge. Once-successful businesses—also under the control of the UEP trust—were drained of their income until they didn’t have enough to keep operating. “This town was built by a religion for a religion,” Terrill says. “It was never built by the people for the people.”

When Jeffs’s deeds came to light before the trial, the state of Utah assumed control over the UEP until it was able to create a local board that put all the former church property into private hands. The hope is that the land in the trust will be redistributed among those who contributed to it. Those who own their homes can now get mortgages on the property to help pay for large repairs. But there are hundreds of homes still in limbo. Many of the homes in town are little more than plywood and windows. Those concrete walls are sturdier than the homes they’re shielding. Many FLDS members have left rather than pay taxes to the secular government. An FLDS-owned grocery store, where many of the faithful shopped, closed in 2017; so many others had left that gross sales were down to a fifth of what they used to be, the owner told the The Salt Lake Tribune. In June 2019, the court-monitored oversight of the UEP trust finally ended after 14 years. Finally, it was time for the community to run itself again.

When Terrill decided he was going to move back to town, roughly five years ago, he wanted to make a difference. “I was in a hospital bed,” Terrill says. “I was supposed to die when we moved out, and it gave me purpose.” All he had growing up were his family and his neighbors. “When you leave that’s the hardest thing; you’re always looking for that community.”

Sect Leader Warren Jeffs Faces Rape Charges In UtahMarches
Colorado City in September 2006
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Behind the walls and secrecy and the centuries of controversy is a lifestyle that few mainstream Americans have considered. The goals and conditions of polygamous marriages are different from monogamous marriages and polyamorous relationships: They aren’t relationships that get stuck on romance—they’re about children, community, and religious conviction. “I mean, if the only motivation is lust, you know as well as I do there’s a hell of a lot easier ways to take care of that,” explains Arthur Hammon, one of the leaders of the Centennial Park group. He has 23 children of his own and another 13 that came into his family when his brother’s widow became one of his three wives. “And a lot less expensive.”

Outside the bedroom—which a man and his sister-wives usually share on a rotating schedule—the day-to-day life of a modern polygamous family isn’t so different from any other religious-minded household in the U.S. One just happens to be illegal. “We really do lead fairly normal lives, just on a much bigger scale,” says Priscilla Hammon, sister of Arthur’s first wife, Marlyne (the two share a father). “And we have our birthday parties way more often than the average family. Our laundry is bigger. Our pots and pans are bigger.”

Plural marriage, and the persecution that has historically come with it, is an enduring part of the social fabric in Short Creek and Centennial Park alike. In some ways, the story of the Latter-day Saints is a story of persecution. In the early 1800s, a man named Joseph Smith claimed he had been visited by an angel who led him to ancient plates. He carefully translated these and wrote them down into a text that he published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, the foundation for a new U.S. religion—the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Around this time, Smith received a revelation while studying the Old Testament; he’d prayed to God asking why many of the patriarchs and prophets were justified in having many wives and learned that they were commanded into it by God.

He amassed followers quickly. The first Latter-day Saints outgrew their New York settlement and began moving westward, first settling in Kirtland, Ohio, before moving on to Jackson County, Missouri, after Smith had a revelation that it would be their Zion. Missourians saw the Latter-day Saints as a troubling new element, and there were so many of them that the mostly Protestant residents worried about their governments being taken over by a new majority. Their forward-facing acceptance of plural marriage only drew further contempt from the good Christian folk. Mistrustful non–Latter-day Saints ran Smith’s followers out of town with vigilante groups. In 1838, Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs decreed, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary.” That year the local militia raided the small settlement of Haun’s Mill, killing 17 people and wounding at least 12 others. A Missouri militiaman found a 10-year-old boy hiding in a blacksmith shop and raised his musket and shot the boy in the head. “Nits will make lice,” he said. “And if he had lived he would have become a Mormon.”

In 1878, Latter-day Saints had the dubious honor of being the subject of the first Supreme Court case to decide what “free exercise of religion” meant in practice. Chief Justice Morrison Waite’s decision noted that while Congress had no power over opinion, it could “reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” In other words, belief is protected, but the practice of polygamy in a monogamous society is not.

This decision, as well as the continued enmity toward Latter-day Saints, made the group publicly end the practice of plural marriage in 1890. Some followers disagreed with the Latter-day Saints church. Those who wanted to continue living plural marriage began doing so largely in secret. Men kept their wives and children hidden throughout the West; they might have a family and home in Salt Lake City but hide others in places like Texas, South Dakota, Mexico, or nearby Short Creek. By 1935, enough people had made their way to Short Creek to practice plural marriage that the founders invited other fundamentalist leaders to visit and make a home. Families often built houses with one structure in Utah and the other in Arizona. If the law came, men could hide their wives and children across the border. The town was designed not for growth or beauty but with their greatest fears in mind. Fears that would come to fruition in the ensuing decades.

In 1953, Arizona governor John Howard Pyle ordered a raid on Short Creek, which was funded through a bill called Operation Seagull that described its purpose as grasshopper control. There’s a Latter-day Saints story about how a harvest in newly settled Salt Lake City was saved from a grasshopper infestation by seagulls that swooped in to eat the pests. Whether it was Mormonism or the state itself that Pyle hoped to save from the swarm of people practicing plural marriage is unclear.

Just before dawn on July 26, officials swarmed Short Creek as explosions rang out over the town, warning people that the law was coming. Martha Sonntag Bradley, former president of the Mormon History Association, wrote in Kidnapped From That Land that the raid “involved every law enforcement agency in Arizona as well as numerous others.” More than 30 men and 80 women were taken into custody for charges that ranged from tax evasion and misappropriation of school funds to adultery, “open and notorious cohabitation,” and “contributing to the delinquency of minors.” Though the Deseret News, a Utah publication owned by the Latter-day Saints church, praised the raid, it was widely condemned as an act of totalitarianism and religious persecution by the media. Articles were often accompanied by photos of mothers and their crying children being herded onto buses.

Though people practicing plural marriage had been persecuted before, the ’53 raid was so large and unexpected and painful that it felt like there were no boundaries to what the law might decide to do next time. People started building hideouts where they could store food and shelter their families for long enough that whoever came looking would have to go away. Even now, on the cliffside behind Short Creek, there are some old grain silos and a dark, ominous cavern with a metal gate.

“The isolation, the authority claims, all those things empowered Jeffs to become a dangerous leader,” Lindsay Hansen-Park, the Mormon feminist behind the podcast Year of Polygamy, tells me. When Jeffs ran Short Creek, everyone from the priesthood to law enforcement to many parents followed his law first and the law of the land second—if they followed it at all. A child who was being abused couldn’t go to the authorities in town and couldn’t go to outsiders for fear that it would lead to their (and all of their siblings) being taken from their family. Today the secular police department is dealing with many years-old accounts of sexual abuse and assault from people who didn’t feel like they could come forward before.

Children have been denied an education outside the church or freedom of choice; underage girls have been forced into marriage. Girls grow up being taught that the only role for women is to get married and make babies. Those who leave are ostracized from the group, cut off from everything they’ve ever known. If they’re a plural wife, they aren’t legally entitled to a share of household property or child support as they would be after a divorce. (Though, on paper, as a single woman with multiple dependents, they’re often able to get support from the state.)

But in Centennial Park, the neighboring community that split off from Short Creek when Rulon Jeffs took power, women have a different view of plural marriage. Here, where the wives share a single large home with their husband, the women become a support network for each other. “I’ve felt freer as my husband’s gotten more ladies,” Priscilla Hammon says.

Some of the women are first wives while others married into families that already had one or more wives. Centennial Park is unique from other plural-marriage-practicing groups like the Kingston Clan or Apostolic United Brethren in a few ways. The wives and husband usually live together in one large home, though this could be a product of Centennial’s openness about their lifestyle. Furthermore, women choose the family they want to enter into. In the FLDS, women and young girls were often assigned to their “family.” Polly Dockstader, the principal of Centennial’s junior high school, explains that the way family roles in the community are constructed, asking who the women want to marry is really asking which man they think will be the best leader for her family’s future. “There’s a lot of confidence you have to put in him.”

When one of Priscilla’s sister-wives wanted to become a nurse—which would require enrolling in a four-year program—all it took was a family meeting. “Today she gets up at 4 in the morning and gets ready, and she’s out of the house by 5,” Priscilla says. “Her sleeping baby is laid in the arms of another mother while she’s still asleep, and she’s bathed by another mother. … Never once does my sister-wife have to worry about getting a babysitter somewhere.”

These wives are fed up with the narrative surrounding their way of life. “The only polygamists people have heard of were the FLDS,” Polly says. The women agreed that it was an ugly face to put on plural marriage. “It’s very demeaning,” Polly says, to have people believe she must have been brainwashed into it. No matter how articulately plural wives state the benefits of their lifestyle (and make it clear that it’s one adopted by choice), they can never escape the perception that they were coached or indoctrinated to believe it. “It’s hard to make people understand that we do have a mind of our own and we do make these choices, but many of us have grown up in it and we can see the advantages in it,” says Marlyne Hammon, Arthur’s first wife and one of the organizers behind a women’s pro-plural-marriage group called the Centennial Park Action Committee.

Polly adds: “In today’s world where just about anything goes, why not us?”

Lucy Knudson, the rare outsider in Centennial Park who didn’t grow up in the Latter-day Saints church, was divorced with a child when she met the man who would become her husband. “When someone told me there was a polygamist coming to work on the restaurant I was working at, that was my first knowledge that that was happening in the United States.” Three months later, they were married; a few months after that, she moved in with him and the rest of the family. “It was all very hush-hush. I was the sister who was staying with the family,” she says now. Lucy’s parents—both Texans—were appalled by her decision to become a plural wife. But eventually her mother accepted Lucy’s choice. She took over a room in the house, helped with the laundry, and even got Christmas presents for all the children—whether biologically related to her or not.

Of course, the CPAC ladies agree, plural marriage isn’t for everyone. The husbands and wives I talk to have no interest in bringing into their community or homes anyone who doesn’t want to be there. As Priscilla puts it, “to drag someone kicking and screaming through this would be terribly miserable.” They separated themselves from the FLDS long ago; though many Centennial families have relatives who followed Jeffs, it made them only more shocked to find out the truth of what had been happening 3 miles away.

If plural marriage seemed more equitable—if multiple husbands could marry the same wife, for example, or if it weren’t practiced in the course of a religion where women traditionally don’t hold leadership roles—it might be an easier sell. The practice of one man having multiple wives predates most religious texts and is about maximizing potential for offspring. In an era when helicopter parenting has become the norm and some parents will cheat and bribe to get their kids into a halfway-decent college, most well-off parents would rather push fewer children to succeed. Plural marriage seems out of date and repressive, and it carries a heavy social stigma.

Instead, many urban and liberal people are turning toward polyamory, where people can and do have committed relationships with multiple partners at the same time. Many people who practice polyamory believe that monogamy puts too much pressure on one’s romantic partner to be all things—the perfect parent, a fun date, an exciting sexual partner, and pillar of emotional support—and thereby lighten the romantic load by having their needs met through multiple people. In a plural family where everyone lives in the same home, they receive the support that comes from communal living in terms of child care, chores, and even friendship from their sister-wives. But the women’s only sexual partner is the man of the house.

Ultimately, the differences come down to whether the institution of marriage enters the picture; from there, it gets murkier. Because those who practice plural marriage have a legal connection to only one wife—unlike bigamy, where someone tries to have two concurrent legal marriages—it’s a hard crime to prosecute. In 1882, the Edmunds Act made “unlawful cohabitation” a federal crime; it would be legal for a man to live with his lawfully wedded wife and have multiple mistresses outside of the home, but not to live with more than one partner.

The fundamental question about whether plural marriage can exist without exploitation centers on whether women raised in polygamous households or communities are able, by virtue of their upbringing, to make a real choice about whether they want to enter into a plural marriage. Separating where upbringing ends and choice begins is difficult, if not impossible. Marrying young is common in mainstream Latter-day Saints culture in the United States, as is having many children—3.4 on average, compared with 2.1 outside the church. Publicly, many polygamous groups like Centennial Park now require girls to wait until 18 to get married—with rare exceptions for pregnancy—but given how secretive these communities are, it’s hard to confirm this fact. People can argue that a 16-year-old isn’t capable of making a choice to enter into plural marriage, much less any marriage, which is legal with parental consent in many states. But who decides how old someone should be before she can make a choice that others don’t agree with?

To stamp out plural marriage in Short Creek is to go against the very thing the town was founded on, what many residents’ living relatives fought to uphold their right to do. But perhaps Jeffs’s crimes, which have become all that most outsiders know of polygamy, were too heinous and public for plural marriage to get out from his shadow. Today there’s a fair amount of tension in Short Creek over whether people should try to eliminate plural marriage, embrace those who practice it, or acknowledge it as part of the town’s history while hoping to eventually leave it in the past. Hansen-Park notes that while most of the people in town grew up with multiple mothers, few are in plural marriages today. “That’s a sign of where the town is headed.” In Centennial Park, I encountered people who would happily enter into plural marriage if they could find another wife to join their family.

“The reality is that you have a lot of plural families that are genuinely happy—or as happy as monogamous families in Mormonism,” Hansen-Park says. She, along with many others, have come to see the goal as not fighting against plural marriage but integrating those who practice it into mainstream society. “As long as we treat them as outliers, they are going to be vulnerable,” Hansen-Park says. Most of these children in the Creek, even those who have wished to leave, love their multiple mothers. “For them, polygamy isn’t the source of their pain.”

Flash Flooding In Southern Utah Kills Over 10 People
Outside Colorado City, Arizona, in 2015
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Short Creek residents are trying to adjust to society’s new rules as the community continues to break from its past shell. Dating back to September 2017, a number of animals in town were shot with guns or pellet guns; after a local animal shelter issued a PSA last June, arguments broke out over the custom of shooting strays for target practice, or for wandering onto adjacent property. “It’s been going on for so long in that community because that community has kind of had its own laws,” the shelter’s director told the The Salt Lake Tribune. “Nobody has really been following the laws of the land.”

In May 2018, the governments of Hildale and the then-FLDS-controlled Colorado City worked together to appoint a new police chief through an intergovernmental agreement. Under Jeffs, the police department was little more than an extension of the FLDS. Even when crimes were reported to the police, the police allowed it to be handled at a church level. So the two governments decided the best candidate for the job would be a complete outsider. Mark Askerlund is a 64-year-old, twice-retired police officer who’d heard only snippets about what had happened in Short Creek and the name “Warren Jeffs” before taking the job. He lives in St. George, about 40 miles away. “This is my third police department and the second I’ve helped rebuild, but it’s by far been the biggest challenge of my police career,” he says. “There’s so much work to be done.”

Early on, Askerlund and the new hires he’s brought to fill the now-11-officer department (as of January 2019) had “cultural awareness training” from Cherish Families, a local nonprofit staffed by people from polygamous backgrounds. “There are certain words and key phrases we were advised to stay away from,” Askerlund says. For example, many don’t like to be called “polygamists,” preferring to say they’re in a “plural marriage.” Developing community relations has been a major aspect of policing in the past few years, and it’s important in the Creek as well. He adds that they have made inroads with the FLDS, who often find themselves victims of crimes like fraud or forgery, offenses the FLDS hadn’t been exposed to before, when they’d isolated themselves from the rest of the country. “It behooves us to reach out to them and educate them on things to be aware of,” he says.

Most of Askerlund’s days involve meetings and answering emails and dealing with the budget, but there’s also conversation. “I spend a good part of my day just talking to people in the community. They all have a story to tell,” he says. “They want to let outsiders like me know some of the things they had to endure in this community.” He likens their situation to someone who has just gotten out of prison and suddenly has more freedom than they remember what to do with. People catch him in the lobby, at lunch, or while he’s on a call, and some tell them of abuse that occurred years earlier. “The people finally have the strength and courage to come forward and report,” Askerlund says. “They want someone to hear their story and believe what they’re saying.” So he stops and he listens, hoping he has showed one more person that this is a police department that’s here for them.

With a population of roughly 8,000 between the two cities, there’s also new crime every day in Short Creek—thefts and sexual assault and burglary and especially vandalism. He suspects the high incidence has more than a little to do with the population of children without parents. Under Jeffs, many children were reassigned to different families—sometimes multiple times. “We’re dealing with a whole generation of youth that don’t really trust adults. They never formed an adult-child bond with anybody.” And because FLDS families don’t send their kids to public school, many of their children receive just a few hours of home-school a day and then are left to entertain themselves. Kids break into the many large, vacant homes. They break windows. They set fires. It’s the usual stuff kids do when they have too much anger and too much time.

His department doesn’t prosecute polygamy. “There’s no doubt that there are a lot of people practicing plural marriage,” Askerlund says. But he wants people to feel that they can trust their local police regardless of their religious affiliations, and it would be impossible to do so if people thought the police were interested in ripping their families apart. Recently, he had an FLDS school walk to the police station for a visit. The kids ranged from 4 to 18. “The fact that they reached out is a small victory,” Askerlund says. It’s the kind of thing that makes him feel like he’s making progress.

Askerlund spends time meeting with other agencies, conducting weekly phone calls about the state of Short Creek. “I tell them things are changing, the community is changing, and there’s a more diverse population moving in here,” he says. Despite the change, he wants to make sure FLDS members still feel like this is their home. “I try to avoid the notion that we want them out of here. They built this community.” He has noticed how much the 1953 raid hangs in the air like a curse. “They honestly believe that any day the troops will come in and grab women and children.” It may be impossible for a police chief to get state and federal agencies to promise they won’t try something like that again, but he’s trying. “Some are more receptive than others,” Askerlund says.

When Shirlee Draper left the FLDS and drove away with her four children in 2004, she thought she was done with the town for good. “I never wanted to see it again, hear about it again, hear Warren Jeffs’s name again,” she says. “I had this idea that I would change my name and never look back, and people wouldn’t know where I came from.” Shirlee made it as far as St. George, Utah—less than 50 miles away. Her daughter has cerebral palsy and her oldest son is also disabled; all the medical services Shirlee needed were in St. George. “Trying to support a family with special-needs kids and preschoolers, you can’t even imagine.” All four of her children were under 10 at the time. “[It’s] one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.” She hoped that as soon as her daughter was stabilized they could finally move far away, start over. Shirlee laughs and says, “It didn’t happen.”

Almost immediately, people from the Creek started coming to her and asking for help with starting their own lives outside of the FLDS. She accidentally found herself becoming an informal advocate and realized she could do even more if she got an education. Shirlee finished her bachelor’s in social work around the same time Cherish Families, the nonprofit she now runs with other women in Short Creek to help people from polygamous backgrounds, got 501(c)(3) status. Shirlee is also getting a master’s in public administration. She’s on the board of the now-citizen-controlled UEP trust, something she was reluctant to do because it was just one more tie to a place she wanted to leave. Shirlee says that after she joined the board, she “saw the changes and what was possible under a local board that understood the community, it made me realize social services should be done inside the community. Now everything I do is for the community.”

In 2015, when Cherish Families became an official nonprofit, Shirlee had been helping people from her hometown for over a decade. But unlike Terrill, who came back to help return his town to the place he remembered, rebuilding Hildale or Colorado City wasn’t on Shirlee’s to-do list in the beginning. “From my perspective, there wasn’t a reason for them to stay,” she says. “I was helping people from the community, not rebuilding the community.” She still hasn’t moved back to Short Creek.

Shirlee isn’t “a fan of polygamy” but she doesn’t think there’s any reason why plural marriage can’t coexist with modern society. She doesn’t see it as a contradiction to dislike plural marriage but believe in its right to exist. “I’m not a fan of the patriarchal structure in any configuration,” she says. “It’s just as unhealthy to be patriarchal in Catholicism as fundamental Mormonism.”

It can take some significant change to establish that kind of respectful coexistence in modernity. By 2017, the walls in town were plastered with election posters, a new sight for most people. Historically, FLDS leadership told members of the community who to vote for—always men with prominent positions in the church. But at least in Hildale, there’s competition and room for dissent. There were posters with Donia Jessop’s smiling face on it, making it hard to miss that an ex-FLDS woman was running for mayor. When she won, she became the first female mayor in the history of Hildale. She won 61 percent of the vote over incumbent Philip Barlow, a member of the FLDS. Maha Layton, another female Hildale native and former FLDS member, ran for City Council and won.

Donia Jessop started her campaign for mayor soon after she and her husband, Joe Jessop, returned to Hildale three years after having left in 2012. It wasn’t until people started telling her that her election would be a milestone in the town’s leadership history that she felt nervous. “Holy crap, it’s a scary thing,” she says. “There were several men, and there still are, that detest me and think that women’s place is not in leadership but at home.” But she believes that all this talk about traditional gender roles only supports the argument that women need to be in leadership positions in this town. “We need heart right now and we need love and acceptance in this town,” Mayor Jessop says. “Women bring the heart.”

There was an explosion of press covering the fact that a woman was elected mayor of this town of a little more than 3,000 people. A lot of headlines carried the same sentiment: Woman Escapes Cult, Then Returns to Become Town Mayor. It seemed like a step forward for Hildale, until six of seven town employees and nine municipal board members across several different town boards quit in protest. “My religion teaches me that I should not follow a woman for a leader in a public or family capacity,” one wrote in his resignation letter.

“If we try to disassociate or hide, we would be hypocrites,” the mayor said a few months after she was elected. Out of her 26 siblings, seven were still in the church as of her appointment, and while they live close by, they stopped speaking to her when she became an apostate. With strong divisions between the FLDS and ex-believers remaining, stopping family members from even speaking to each other at the grocery store, it’s not surprising that residents don’t want the town to be synonymous with polygamy anymore. “It’s not here anymore. … We have a rich, beautiful history, and it doesn’t all include polygamy.”

“In a town where everybody used to agree on everything, there’s a lot of diversity here,” Mayor Jessop said. “It’s a beautiful thing but also hard to deal with.”

The mayor said that courting new business has been a challenge for the town. “Banks don’t want to give us loans,” she told me. “They’re afraid we will turn into a cult and get shut down one day.” Two years after Mayor Jessop took office, the town’s rebrand seems to be working. In May 2019, Infab, a company that produces X-ray protection equipment, finalized plans to expand to Hildale, bringing 90 jobs with it.

Until the Hildale elections, City Hall was locked to its constituents. “You couldn’t get services in a timely manner,” Shirlee says. “They didn’t outright discriminate; it just never happened.” That’s all changed since Donia Jessop was elected mayor and the City Council was overhauled. In Colorado City, where six out of seven town councilmembers and the mayor himself follow the FLDS, it’s still locked. In April 2019, Arizona approved funds to investigate potential voter fraud during the most recent Colorado City election. “They’ll put you on camera,” Shirlee says, if you try to walk up to the door and go inside City Hall. (Colorado City government didn’t respond to The Ringer’s requests for comment.) Thanks to an intergovernmental agreement, people in Colorado City who need city services or to pay their utilities can go to Hildale, and they do.

When Shirlee takes people on a tour of the Creek, they typically see a rundown landscape, she says. But she can see the difference. A lot of walls have been removed, including the one in front of Cherish Families. The once-derelict city park filled with giant cottonwood trees has been spruced up; the playground has new equipment. People are remodeling their homes and repainting. “As far as its prospects, it has nowhere to go but up,” Shirlee says. “It’s going to be a fantastic place to be in 10 years.”

6 People Feared Dead In Flash Floods In Southern Utah Community
Workers in Hildale, Utah, after the September 2015 flash floods
Getty Images

In September 2015, a flash flood swept through Short Creek’s dry beds, a dusty low point that goes through town and fills with water during hard rains. It swept away multiple vehicles, including two vans full of women and children. Of the 16 people in those vehicles, only three boys survived. Today the creek bed where the flood occurred is flat and dry, though Terrill tells me it’s a lot wider than it used to be. Terrill recalls watching the town’s residents, both current and former FLDS members, many of whom hadn’t spoken in years, searching side-by-side for the missing people. Hundreds of volunteers poured in from out of town to help with the rescue—one of the first times that government agencies had come into town to assist, rather than arrest. “People got to see how the real world was,” Terrill says. “The flood really changed this town.” The tragedy opened up the possibility that the outside world might not be as evil as Jeffs and other religious leaders had always told them.

In May 2018, Water Canyon High School in Hildale graduated 30 students, the first class that had attended high school all four years. The kids participate in sports and use the internet; they’re from a small town, but not disconnected from the world anymore. Now when Short Creek takes advantage of its location on the border of two states, it’s to sell beer—not escape the law. The area’s first bar, Edge of the World Brewery, opened in Colorado City. It sells higher-proof alcohol than would be allowed in Utah.

Short Creek’s metamorphosis is ongoing. In Colorado City, a new town center is taking shape. Near the brewery, there’s a fried chicken joint and a coffee shop that wouldn’t seem out of place in Brooklyn. Joe Jessop, the mayor’s husband, who is also involved with the recovery efforts in town, has opened a gas station and briefly ran a fast food restaurant. When I met Joe for the first time, all I could see were his legs and lower torso sticking out from underneath the fryer he was setting up just a week before the grand opening. After months of hard work—years, considering the big-picture history that took him to this point—he was putting the finishing touches on a Hildale business that the church couldn’t destroy.

Joe describes the area as “the beginning of the revolution.” As more places open up, Joe says people are seeing proof that “life is being brought back into the community.” Those who grew up before Jeffs took power feel a strong connection to this town, but they have to make sure young people feel the same way. Joe wants to help them find purpose and believe that this land is their land too. “They were born here. This red dirt’s in their blood. Let’s stand up for it and make this place into a great place again.”

Jeffs’s sentencing was the catalyst for a change that was a long time coming, Terrill tells me. “He sped up the process; he ripped the Band-Aid off. A lot of people got hurt, but I can’t imagine how many more would have been hurt if they’d let it go on.”

Secrecy was set into the foundation of Short Creek, and that foundation crumbled trying to protect plural marriage from the outside world. Joe has faith—like Terrill and George and Shirlee and Donia—that there’s a better, more open version of the community that can support each other and open connections to the outside world. “I’m not hoping we can go back to what it was,” Joe says. “We can make it better.”

Tove K. Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Find her @TKDano or at her website.

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