Hildale, Utah — At the southernmost tip of Utah, not far from Zion National Park sits the town of Hildale.
Sometimes referred to as “Short Creek” because of this stream that separates it from neighboring Colorado City.
Its earliest settlers were breakaway members of the Church of Latter Day Saints known as Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints.
One of their fundamental practices was polygamy. “I was 65. You were number 65? Yes! And he had a total of how many? At least 79,” said Briell Decker.
She grew up in the church, lived the pioneer lifestyle, donning hand-made dresses, cooking, cleaning, and above all staying obedient to the group’s leader, Warren Jeffs, a man who called himself a prophet of God.
At 18, Briell was selected by Jeffs to become one of his many brides, moving into the 45-room building where most of the wives and children lived.
She did it out of obligation, but Briell says there were problems, and rumors of underage girls.
“It felt wrong. It did feel wrong,” she said. Not long after their marriage, Jeff landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Then, on Aug. 28, 2006, he was arrested outside Las Vegas.
Troopers recovered wigs and other disguises, also more than a dozen cell phones and $50,000 in cash.
Ultimately, Jeffs would be sent to prison for sexually assaulting young girls he considered his wives.
The youngest was only 12. “Sexual abuse, mental abuse, underage marriage, human trafficking,” said Leona Bateman, who was also a member of the FLDS. Her son Randee was kicked out at 15 for dating another girl in the church, which was against the rules. “My son committed suicide because of that,” she said.
Today, Leona runs the Creekers Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping women transition out of the church and hundreds have done just that.
“The women here are waking up. And many of Warren Jeffs’ wives and women around the community have been severely abused and gone through tremendous healing,” she said. The town of Hildale has also undergone transition. There are construction projects, public schools and housing developments. Internet and satellite tv which were forbidden are now commonplace. Non-members and former FLDS now make up a majority of the community, but moving forward has been a challenge. “It’s the ultimate betrayal. And using religion to do it was just awful,” she said.
Willie Jessop, Warren Jeffs’ former bodyguard. He says not only did Jeffs control “who” people married or “where” they lived, but “what” they owned.
“That everything belonged to God, that he was a spokesman for God and so he would have everyone put everything they owned, every piece of land, every asset into his control,” said Jessop. The money all went into a church trust, but following Jeffs' arrest, there was chaos as far as who was entitled to what. “What ultimately happened is, as people left the church, or were kicked out of the church, they lost their homes,” said Jeff Barlow, also a former FLDS member who now directs the trust which is currently under Utah state control.
Some of those former members, he says, were initially forced into tents and trailers, but now there’s an effort to give back what is rightfully theirs. “As soon as the state of Utah participated in reforming that trust, all of a sudden all these people were eligible, and it started this sort of reverse migration,” said Barlow. Today, many former members who fled are returning reclaiming their share of land.
But reclaiming their lives has been an altogether different struggle. Briell stayed loyal to the faith even after Jeffs' arrest, though life was near impossible. She says other church elders still demanded her obedience, even to the point of imprisonment. “So I had to unscrew the screws on the window and climb out the window, so I was trapped for about 5 years, I would say,” she said.
Ultimately, Briell did escape. Ironically the home where she once lived with Jeffs and the other wives, is now a recovery center where she’s employed to counsel other victims of abuse.
While there are still remnants of the fundamentalist group in Hildale, the church has mostly fractured and reassembled, with settlements in parts of South Dakota, Texas and Canada.
Even though their prophet is behind bars for life, many members continue to believe Jeffs is still their rightful ordained leader, a thought that terrifies Briell. “But if they believe in Warren Jeffs, there is a risk factor that appointed marriage pedophilia will continue,” she said.
Despite its history, Hildale is healing, and will likely continue to grow. And for some it will always remain a place close to God, once set aside for his people.
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