The woman who escaped a polygamous cult – and turned its HQ into a refuge

Briell Decker was 18 when she became the 65th wife of US cult leader Warren Jeffs. Can she help heal the town his FLDS sect ruled for generations?

The Guardian, UK/October 13, 2018

By Alex Hannaford

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.

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 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-vault-style 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.”

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.”

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