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for people who care about the West

What happens when the church comes for your kids?

Former FLDS members fight for their families and homes.

In 2011, the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaimed what some in their community would come to call the “Dishrag Revelation.” Church authorities demanded that the faithful give all their property — down to the dishrags — to the church. The authorities would then redistribute to each family what they needed, according to the judgment of those same authorities. If someone brought in two flashlights, for example, they might get only one back, and not necessarily one of those they gave away.

“This is not real,” former member Sheldon Black remembers thinking. “This is a bad dream.”

 

And then it got worse. Black, talking to me in his shop in June 2016, says church leaders called him to the meetinghouse in Hildale, Utah, in June 2012. He walked down a dark hallway toward the one illuminated room. Inside sat religious leaders Isaac and Nephi Jeffs, Rich Allred, and Nate Jessop. They made him wait outside for 30 minutes, with only a hymnal for company. He paged through it, scanning notes and lyrics that he’d sung his whole life.

When they finally called him in, they had a special revelation for him: According to Warren Jeffs, the prophet whose dictates were church doctrine, he and his second wife, Cindy, had committed “abortive miscarriage.”

Black knew that hadn’t happened. “I lived my whole life trusting these people, and now they’re shoving this lie and telling you it’s God’s truth,” he says.

But Black also knew that he had to give this room of illuminated figures exactly what they wanted: submission, acceptance, a humble “I guess.” He’d always said “yes” to church leaders — yes, I will give you my dishrags and my paycheck. Yes, I sustain you as prophet. Yes, I will marry the girl you chose for me.

So, after some hesitation, he agreed to the false accusation, too. And to the subsequent excommunication. Like the hundreds of others the Jeffses have excommunicated in recent years, he would have to leave town — the only home he’d ever known, the house he’d built, his two wives and all of his children. He would not be allowed to speak to or see any of them.

Along with every other FLDS member, he had previously signed custody of his kids over to the church, a state of affairs detailed in numerous court cases and confirmed in interviews with ex-FLDS members and their legal representatives. FLDS parents have “stewardship” over their offspring — and husbands have it over their wives — but members are told that both women and children “belong” to the religious organization. Parents are to care for their families, but when the prophet decides to transpose family members — a wife swapped to a new husband, kids sent to a different caretaker — the people say yes. They walk away from their marriages and watch their children move into different houses. They turn their backs on their town.

Black went home, knowing that Cindy would soon get a phone call, telling her about the miscarriage she had not had. The leaders would send her away. Their children would be “redistributed”; his first wife, Angela, and their children would be “given” to caretakers, or to a new husband and father figure. As Black tells me this story, Cindy sits next to him, silent and nodding.

When Cindy’s call came, Black looked across the room at his thin, gray-skinned wife, malnourished from church-mandated food restrictions. He thought of her alone in the world, an alien place. He imagined her dying out there and wondered what would happen to their kids. He pictured himself, alone.

Later, as the spouses prepared to leave, separately, church officials said to Black, “We’ll take the children, if you will.”

And he thought, but did not say: “What if I won’t?”

He and Cindy agreed to leave together, and take the children with them. And so in secret, in the middle of the night, they all left in their van.

When the Blacks entered the world outside of their polygamous enclave — the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona, collectively called Short Creek — the children were horrified. They put pillows up to the windows so they wouldn’t have to see the nearly naked pedestrians with their bare limbs, a far cry from the long-sleeved shirts, long-legged pants and modest prairie dresses that were pro forma in Short Creek.

The family sojourned in Flagstaff, Arizona, then in Nevada, Salt Lake City and Idaho, assisted by already-out family, other former FLDS members, and an organization called Holding Out HELP. Soon enough, their children stopped shielding their eyes. They even watched their first movie. “They didn’t smile or anything,” Black tells me, although he smiles himself at the memory. They just stood up and looked closer at the screen, trying to decipher this technological magic.

But the magic couldn’t last. Black soon heard that back in Short Creek, his first wife, Angela, had also been sent away. Her kids — his kids — were living alone with his adult son, Sheldon Jr.

“I had two underage daughters, and I knew what they were going to be getting into,” Black says: meaning, potentially, forced relations with older men. Now he was asking, “What if we just take the children?”

Black is not alone in asking that question. He represents a growing demographic: former FLDS parents who have returned to Short Creek to try to wrest their children away from the church, often with the help of lawyer Roger Hoole, who prepares and serves the legal documents and contacts helpful law enforcement.

The prophet who giveth may take away. But some of the people he taketh away from aren’t putting up with it anymore, another sign of cracks in what had been, for more than half a century, an impenetrable and opaque world. With its leaders in legal trouble, population booming in the nearby metro area, and former exiles returning, Short Creek is secularizing, and the FLDS hold over the town is loosening at last.

 

A woman does yard work at an FLDS store and storehouse in Hildale, Utah.
George Frey

The Blacks’ former religion is a controversial offshoot of Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The mainline Mormon Church officially espoused polygamy in 1843. Its founder, Joseph Smith, married as many as 40 wives, according to Mormon leaders. His successor, Brigham Young, took 55 wives. But their fellow citizens in the American East and Midwest had strong objections to their polygamous and quasi-theocratic communities — towns like Nauvoo, Illinois, a place not all that dissimilar to Short Creek.

So, like unhappy misfits since America’s founding, the Mormons headed West. In the 1840s, Young led around 70,000 settlers to the Utah Territory’s Great Basin. It was the perfect spot: bounded on the east by the wall of Wasatch Mountains, sitting next to the huge but useless Great Salt Lake — and, at that time, beyond the reach of United States law.

Polygamy went unpunished until the Utah Territory was acquired from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. U.S. leadership attempted to rein in the Mormons and separate the church and the soon-to-be state. For a while, polygamy survived, and church leaders dispatched the faithful to set up polygamous outposts across the West, including in Short Creek. But then came the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which prohibited polygamy, disincorporated the LDS church, and allowed the government to confiscate its assets.

Three years later, citing nothing less than the will of the Lord, then-prophet Wilford Woodruff declared that the LDS church would abandon the practice.

Many Latter-day Saints saw this declaration as terrestrially, not celestially, motivated. And in the far-flung settlements across the West, men continued to marry multiple women. Short Creek, in particular, became a known “safe space” for polygamy. Like Salt Lake City, it had both natural and manmade protections. It straddled the Utah-Arizona state line, complicating law enforcement. The Vermillion Cliffs rose on one side, and the Grand Canyon fell 40 miles away on the other. No one would bother them here.

Short Creek’s polygamy-practicing members were excommunicated from the official LDS church in the 1930s, and the area took on its own religious identity, which later became the more official FLDS church.

And for a long time, life was, if not idyllic, at least less Orwellian than it is now. I spoke to former members who remember their childhoods fondly, and think of Short Creek past as a pleasant place. In those days, church members could watch movies, ride bicycles and hold public festivals, without the constant threat of excommunication. Problems existed, of course, especially for women, who were still married off at young ages and had little control over their lives. Children worked long days to support the church and its businesses.

For the most part, until the past decade or so, the federal government let the FLDS live undisturbed in the Arizona Triangle. Turning a blind eye, living and letting live — choose your own cliché to describe its lack of response. But there have been notable exceptions. In 1953, for example, the Arizona National Guard raided Short Creek, arresting 36 men and taking 86 women and 263 children into state custody. It took up to two years for some of the men to be released on probation, after they promised to give up polygamy — a promise they swiftly reneged on.

It’s an incident that looms large in FLDS culture, a documented historical event that justifies the sense of persecution. In local Cottonwood Park this June, I came across a rock memorial to the event. Carved like a formal commandment into it are the words: “We must never forget how the Lord blessed us in restoring our families taken in the 53 raid.”

But in ’53, the threat to FLDS families came from outsiders. Now it comes from insiders — some of them among the innermost.

[GALLERY:1]

Trouble truly began when a prophet named Rulon Jeffs began to age, in the late 1990s. As Rulon’s health declined, one of his sons, Warren, started to siphon power away. In 2002, when his father died, Warren Jeffs assumed the presidency. Children and women were church-owned property, to move around whenever he wanted. That had always been true to some extent, but Warren Jeffs was the first to fully flex the muscles just beneath the skin of the hierarchy.

He began marrying adult men to underage girls. His flight from prosecution landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in late 2005. The authorities caught him in 2006 and jailed him for 10 years to life in 2007, but the Utah Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2010. The next year, though, he was sentenced to life plus 20 years for two counts of sexual assault on minors.

During his tenure, Jeffs, with the help of on-the-ground leadership, banned toys and pets; televisions and internet access; any interaction with outsiders. Dishrags sat on shelves in the communal storehouse. After Warren Jeffs’ sentencing, his brother, Lyle, continued his policies. The Jeffs brothers could pluck a woman from her husband and force her into another relationship, seemingly at random. They could send the children to a different house entirely. They could excommunicate either or both parents, and send the kids to a caretaker. They exiled boys who might be marital competition and sent away business-owners to minimize their influence.

Kristyn Decker, who grew up in a parallel polygamous sect called the Apostolic United Brethren, says she doesn’t know of a single intact family. Decker, who founded the Sound Choices Coalition, also assists Holding Out HELP, the organization that helped the Blacks find refuge. She believes that the crisscrossing of kin — and the constant anxiety of wondering who will be next, and when — furthered one of Warren Jeffs’ goals: Everyone’s strongest attachment would have to be to him. “He’s ripping people’s hearts apart,” she says. “People are getting to the point, even the elderly people, where they can’t love someone.”

Hoole estimates that the Jeffses have excommunicated hundreds of people. While census-style data are not available, local organizer Terrill Musser estimates that between 1,000 and 1,400 FLDS members remain — way down from the heyday of 10,000. Many have left or been forced out, while others have moved to a new headquarters in Texas. Musser says between 100 and 200 of the excommunicated people have returned to Short Creek.

But Jeffs’ grip is loosening. He’s in jail, after all, and the leadership of the church is uncertain. He issues decrees, but so does Lyle Jeffs. Members of the church — and people who are excommunicated but still faithful — may hear about the crimes of those in charge and feel the leadership vacuum. Warren Jeffs has said he was never a prophet; he has also said he is absolutely in charge. And now Lyle Jeffs is on the lam, and Nephi Jeffs is the new bishop. The Short Creek residents I spoke to said they did not know how to reach church leaders, who are largely jailed or in hiding and who are, in any case, forbidden to speak to infidels from outside like me.

One of the hundreds of abandoned homes of Short Creek once claimed by the FLDS. The state of Utah seized the properties in 2005, and through a local organization called the United Effort Plan Trust is in the process of returning them to former and current FLDS members.
George Frey

The FLDS faithful are also now surrounded by former members, who are now considered apostates. The state of Utah took over the church’s financial arm, the United Effort Plan Trust, in 2005. In 2014, the state-run trust began returning houses to the exiles that had built them, but that they had been evicted from. But that means kicking faithful FLDS members out of the houses in which they’ve been living, forcing them out of the area they’ve called home for generations. “You have one group of people that might be celebrating the changes in the town,” says Christine Marie Katas, one of the few non-FLDS people that FLDS members will talk to, “and you have another group of people that are in a state of psychological crisis because they believed this was their religious heritage.”

That demographic shift has begun to secularize Short Creek and opened it to outside influence even as its geographic isolation is ending. Nearby St. George is the fifth fastest-growing city in the nation, drawing retirees and sun-lovers who don’t adhere to even mainstream Mormonism. More mountain bikers are riding the trails on Gooseberry Mesa, just north of Hildale. And Zion National Park, a mere 10 miles or so from Short Creek, has become so popular that officials are considering creating a cap on the number of visitors. A town that was once on a road to nowhere is now on a highway with REI-recommended destinations.

Visitors are rarely harassed as they once were. In the two visits I’ve made, I have experienced none of the harassment — stalking by church security or hostility at local businesses — described in earlier accounts like Under the Banner of Heaven and Prophet’s Prey. When I arrived in town on a May trip and needed a sandwich, the gentile-owned local Subway gladly obliged. And in June, while I was waiting for an interview, I took a hike up Maxwell Canyon. A group of girls in prairie dresses — current FLDS members — were getting water from pumps near the trailhead. They shyly walked up to me, played with my dog, and asked where I was from and if I thought it was pretty here. I watched a group of truck-driving men silently tow a tourist’s stuck car out of a ditch, and I saw a long-sleeved boy ride a bicycle down the street.

There is talk of a new grocery store. Last year, the town held its first public festivals since Jeffs banned them. The old church storehouse is now a public high school.

Federal intervention has also forced Short Creek to be friendlier to outsiders. In March 2016, a federal jury ruled that the town discriminated against non-FLDS members, denying them basic services like utility hook-ups and building permits. In December 2016 closing court arguments, the Justice Department said that the local police force should be disbanded, suggesting the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office could soon take over local law enforcement entirely. In April, though, the judge ruled against that, instead requiring revised procedures and an independent mentor. “It takes a long time to build up the trust with the victims for them to feel safe enough to come to outside agencies for help,” says Buster Johnson, a Mohave County supervisor. “This should have happened years ago, but government agencies have protected the abusers in Colorado City.”

On top of all this, an ongoing federal fraud case alleges that 11 top leaders, including Lyle Jeffs, ordered church members to apply for food stamps, which were then relinquished to the church. With the eyes of so many judicial agencies on the FLDS, the era of “live and let live” seems to have died.

 

Activist Terrill Musser, who left the church at age 18, has returned to Short Creek with his wife, Heather, and they’re raising their family in this Hildale home — built by Heather’s grandparents — they acquired through the United Effort Plan Trust.
George Frey

But the growing influence of the outside world has pushed some members, as well as the leaders who control them, to double down, according to Musser, who left the FLDS when he was 18 and returned to his Short Creek house last year. If there’s anything that binds together a religious group, it’s a persecution narrative. It was true in 1840s mainline Mormonism; it’s true in the 2010s fundamentalist offshoot.

Black knew that his still-faithful adult son, Sheldon Jr., was currently caring for the children Black had had with his now-excommunicated first wife, Angela. He did not want his children raised in the FLDS culture. Parentless kids, forbidden to attend public school, are sometimes sent to work, says longtime Short Creek activist and former FLDS member Andrew Chatwin. He has photos of children welding at New Era Manufacturing Inc., which machines components for the aerospace and medical industries, and of girls driving around at midday, sitting four across in the front seats of delivery trucks. As he and I drove around town in June, we passed just such a crew, stopped in front of us at an intersection. The Department of Labor has multiple ongoing investigations against the church for child labor, according to regional director Juan Rodriguez.

Sometimes, leaders send the “orphaned” kids to “houses of hiding” scattered across the American West, Canada, and Central and South America, in a network detailed in a Department of Justice fraud investigation. The FLDS have also set up more outposts, like the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas; a colony in Bountiful, British Columbia; and, most recently, one in Pringle, South Dakota. But the Texas site has already been raided by federal authorities and is now in the crosshairs of the Department of Labor, and the residents of Pringle are not quiet in their concerns about the newcomers. Starting a secluded town in the 21st century is even harder than keeping a once-secluded town cloistered in the face of creeping secularism.

Black knew that girls are sometimes trafficked between compounds for sex. Today, intercourse is only allowed between about 15 high-ranking “seed bearers” and whichever FLDS women (or girls) they choose, according to custody hearing documents filed by Lyle Jeffs’ estranged wife Charlene. Black didn’t want a “seed bearer” choosing his daughters. So he went back to Short Creek to rescue them.

When people like Black want to reunite with their children, they talk to Hoole. “My work has been basically to respond to parents who come to me and say, ‘You know what, I’ve woken up. I’ve got to get my kids out of there,’ ” he says.

That may be straightforward legally — petitioning for custody if one parent actually lives with the children, simply exercising existing custody rights if both parents are out of the church. But it’s not that easy in practice: The still-loyal parent will “fight like crazy,” says Hoole, to keep the kids away. Caretakers will resist. In Short Creek, local law enforcement may not cooperate. And the kids are rarely still living where the parent left them. Sometimes, they’re in the houses of hiding; other times, they’re behind the 10-foot walls that buttress faithful FLDS houses. Returnees catch glimpses of their family members in cars, the drivers’ identities hinting at where their offspring now live. Sometimes they find out their family’s location by accident, as returnee Art Blackwell did. He went to tune a neighbor’s piano and heard his kids’ voices drifting through the slats in the fence. He couldn’t see them, or speak to them. But he stood outside their fortress for an hour, just listening.

Hoole first has to find the kids and figure out how to contact them; then he has to find the appropriate law enforcement and serve the legal papers. “And then we swoop in and try to get those kids,” he says. Invariably, though, church members try to stop them.

When Black was ready, he asked the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department and sympathetic local friends to accompany him to his old house. His knock went unanswered, so he walked in, thinking no one was home. But he found his daughters standing in the kitchen. They froze, silent and still and white.

Out of an interior room walked his son, their caretaker. When Black told him he was here to get the girls, Sheldon Jr. produced the church’s custody papers. The sheriff pointed out that a parent had a legal right to his children.

Black’s children, though, no longer wanted him. They had been told that he was evil, an apostate from their faith. “Look who’s breaking up the family now,” his son said.

“I started to feel wicked,” confesses Black. He wondered, “Am I hurting these people who have been so programmed against us?”

He put the girls in his car and drove away anyway.

Workmen construct a restroom at the increasingly popular Water Canyon trailhead, just two miles north of Hildale and near Zion National Park. Recreationists, including tour companies like Zion Adventure Company out of Springdale, are bringing more and more outsiders to the area.
George Frey

The church keeps an emotional clamp on the excommunicated — both disaffected ones like Black and those who are still enmeshed in the faith. But after the revelation of their leaders’ criminal practices, after they talk to other apostates, after they see the outside world isn’t so bad, most of them start to see the Jeffses in a new light. The online world is perhaps the best abettor of apostasy.

“If they get on the internet, for example, which is a no-no, and start looking at what’s happening,” says Hoole, “then they start having the pieces of the puzzle come together, and a lot of them will realize, ‘My heavens, I’ve left my children in that mess, and they’re being trained by somebody else for who knows what, and I’ve got to get them back.’ ”

They come to understand that their children belong with them and that the custody they supposedly signed away is actually still theirs.

Briell Decker stands in the industrial-sized kitchen of the Hildale compound where she once lived as one of the wives of FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs. Now, she’s left the church and gained ownership of the property through the United Effort Plan Trust, and is seeking financing to convert it to a commercial enterprise.
George Frey

Decker walks through an outdoor courtyard of the property below the words “Pray and obey.”
George Frey

“Once you start reading, it’s like a flood,” Art Barlow told me in June, as he paused his landscaping work at the town’s new dentist’s office. A year before, newly exiled, he still believed it all. Then, click by click, his faith washed away. He had returned to his Hildale house six months earlier, hoping to make it a nice place for the two youngest of his 17 children, who are still minors. He plans to go find them soon.

But the church’s continuing influence strains relations between parents and returned children. Parents feel like they are saving their kids from labor, forced marriage and mind control. Unfortunately, they often find out that their children don’t want to be saved.

When Black brought the kids home, things went smoothly for a little while. Then his daughters started getting phone calls from the FLDS. One daughter said they’d been told to fight for their rights. The other said, “Just fight.”

The girls put a picture of Warren Jeffs on the wall, “I LOVE YOU” scrawled on it. Black worried they would try to convert his and Cindy’s kids — who now understood that movies weren’t magic and who wore the kind of clothes that had once scandalized them — to “Warrenism.”

The new girls started pulling increasingly malicious pranks — raisins in their father’s bed, cat food in his shoes.

“All they wanted was to come back here,” he says, referring to Short Creek. “I just got so tired.”

One morning, Black and Cindy woke up to find that the girls were gone.

The FBI soon tracked them down. They had returned to Sheldon Jr.’s house, so Black decided to try to take them back — again.

But after the FLDS got word of Black’s plans, they had his daughters call Angela, the girls’ sent-away mother, to say they had nowhere to stay. Soon, the Arizona police called to let Black know the children were in Angela’s custody. She had just as much right to them as he did — unless he was willing to press charges against a family member.

“This is somebody you’ve been married to for 30 years, and now she’s your enemy,” Black says. He adds that Lyle Jeffs, not Angela, is the person he’d like to charge with a crime.

So Black let the girls go. And after he retreated, the FLDS snatched the girls from Angela and sent them back to Hildale. Black is now there, too, and he moved from his shop back into his house in December 2016. He knows his daughters are nearby, but no matter how close he gets, there is always something between them — a fence, a relative, the God he gave them.

Deprogramming a child is possible. It just takes time. Adults — with their fully developed frontal lobes — often take years to slide from sincere belief to doubt. So it makes sense that the children who have grown up with the Jeffses’ authority, all the edicts and absolutes, who have never known anything but this town, would have trouble adapting to life in the outside world.

Give them time, and let them get used to freedom, says former FLDS member Lawrence Barlow. In the two years between when his daughters moved back in with him and when we spoke last summer, the kids have settled in to their new world.

They still wear their prairie dresses to school, but that’s fine, says Barlow. He wants them to feel how they feel, to do what they want, to make their own choices. He wants to give them what their religion could not.

“They’ve found out it’s OK for them to just be,” he says.

A girl — who sticks out her tongue when she spots a photographer — rides with others wearing traditional FLDS prairie dresses in Hildale, Utah.
George Frey

Note: This article has been updated to correct the profession of Kristyn Decker, who founded the Sound Choices Coalition. 

Sarah Scoles is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. Her first book, Making Contact, comes out in July.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.