In a fundamentalist Mormon town, modernization highlights a stark divide

“A lot of things are changing and we just kind of hoped people would be open to the idea,” said the owner of the first bar in Colorado City, where alcohol was once banned.

NBC News/December 18, 2018

By Tammy Leitner and David Douglas

Colorado City, Arizona — Change is coming to this tiny community known as Short Creek that straddles the Arizona-Utah border. What some consider progress, however, other residents see as a threat to their very way of life.

In an area first settled in the 1930s, Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, were ruled for years by fundamentalist Mormon leader Warren Jeffs. Since his 2006 arrest and subsequent imprisonment, Short Creek has undergone a transformation unimaginable to many of its residents.

“A lot of things are changing and we just kind of hoped people would be open to the idea,” said Maria Jessop who owns Edge of the World Brewery, the first bar in Colorado City, where alcohol was once banned.

Across the street is now a vape shop. And down the road, a Subway.

These are all businesses that would have countered the expectations of Jeffs and other leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as FLDS.

Jeffs — who has been serving a life sentence in Texas since 2011 for sexually assaulting girls he took as child brides — is still seen by many as the faith’s current prophet. Life under his command shifted dramatically over the years as many books and games were banned. Women in the faith cover themselves from neck to toe, a practice of modesty many say they willingly choose. Most men in the faith have multiple wives.

Governance of the cities have been overseen by a court-appointed monitor since summer 2017, after a U.S. District Judge found they had violated fair housing law and unevenly provided public services, such as police responses, based on residents’ faith.

In Jeffs' absence, both time and government authorities have brought change to Short Creek.

“We want to open our doors. We want to share our amazing community with the world,” said Donia Jessop, the first female, non-FLDS mayor of Hildale. She left the polygamist community and FLDS faith years ago, but moved back, hoping she could bring progress to the community — which some had described as being frozen in time.

In her first year as mayor, Jessop implemented Hildale’s first-ever zoning laws. She wants to pave dirt roads and tear down tall privacy fences around homes — built during the Jeffs era to keep prying eyes of the outside world out.

Now many FLDS residents find themselves feeling like the outsiders.

A land trust known as the United Effort Plan was taken over by Arizona and Utah regulators in 2006. It’s creation was to manage the communal property of the FLDS community, with governance that was once exclusively FLDS.

In the years since, Jeff Barlow, the executive director of the UEP trust, said that between 150 and 170 families have been evicted from their homes for failure to pay property taxes. Two FLDS members told NBC News they passed on their tax payment to church leaders to handle for them. Regulators say the money never ended up in their coffers.

Jessop estimates the evictions account for nearly 90 percent of Hildale’s former residents, with a single FLDS family often made up of dozens wives and children.

“The FLDS feel like they’ve been driven off their land. They feel like the apostates have moved in and I’m part of that. Moved in and kicked them out, when in actuality I had nothing to do with it,” Jessop said. "I am part of the people who have come back to repair and rebuild. But ... they see me as someone coming back to destroy."

Norma Richter is one of a dwindling number of FLDS members in Short Creek.

“We hate to say them and us, but in a way, I guess it is," she told NBC News. "We get the feeling they don’t want us here, but this is our land. This is where my grandfather came. He homesteaded so that the faithful could stay.”

Advocate Christine Marie Katas moved to the community to help FLDS women and families. She likens the evictions and turnover to a “cultural extinction.”

“It seems as if, the public think anything negative that happens to them, that's okay, because they don't agree with their religion,” said Katas, who works with the FLDS community through her non-profit Voices for Dignity. “And that's really heartbreaking. Because they are American citizens who deserve as many constitutional rights and civil rights as anybody else.”

FLDS member Esther Bistline says she has no choice but to stay and fight — in part because homes in the community for years have been built to accommodate the typically large families.

“As a single mother of 11 children, I have no way to go anywhere else,” she said. “Where am I going to find a home big enough?”

Bistline said her story illustrates something many outsiders don’t understand about the FLDS faith — its participants have free will like anyone else. She divorced her husband when her marriage became unhealthy.

“I don’t have a way to go somewhere else and find a home, finance a home," Bistline said.

Just last week, the UEP took possession of the FLDS meetinghouse. While the land trust claims it hadn’t been used in some time and the utilites had been turned off, the loss of yet another cultural symbol was a crushing blow to the FLDS community.

For Richter and others, it was another sign their faith is under attack.

“This is home,” she adds. “This is where I want to be. And this is who I want to be. And I don’t care what anybody else wants me to be.”

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