From Polygamy to Democracy: Inside a Fundamentalist Mormon Town

From Polygamy to Democracy: Inside a Fundamentalist Mormon Town

Tolga Katas for Rolling Stone

How does a community long run by a cult-like leader move away from a theocracy and into a new era?

How does a community long run by a cult-like leader move away from a theocracy and into a new era?

On a sunny day in May, a very strange reunion is happening in the dusty desert town of Hildale, Utah. In an empty lot, tables and chairs stand in long rows, covered with plastic tablecloths that flap in the wind. At noon, the guests arrive. They come in Hondas and cargo shorts, Toyotas and tank tops, lining up at the buffet and fanning themselves with paper plates. On the other side of the table, women in pastel prairie dresses and braids dish out macaroni salad, molded Jell-O dishes and a local specialty called funeral potatoes. When the plates change hands, some smile and others shyly look down. People are nervous, and for good reason. Half of them are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – a polygamous sect commonly known as FLDS – and the other half are apostates, pariahs who have left the faith. They're also the women's brothers, sisters, cousins and aunts. And it's the first time they've interacted in years.

The luncheon is an attempt to rebuild a community riven with animosities. For over a decade, Hildale and its neighboring town of Colorado City, Arizona (collectively known as Short Creek) were controlled by FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs. Paranoid and punishing, Jeffs ran the community as a theocratic fiefdom, appointing cronies to government positions and dictating everything from what his followers could wear to who they could marry. As Jeffs consolidated power, he began to break up families, re-assigning husbands and wives and banishing hundreds from the community. According to Elissa Wall, one of the FLDS child brides who helped bring Jeffs to justice, Jeffs and his brother, Lyle, told their followers that these apostates were to be "left alone severely." The line comes from Nineteenth-century Mormon prophet Brigham Young, but Jeffs took it and weaponized it. Apostates could lose their homes, their families, and their jobs. Once shunned, they could go for years without seeing their relatives – even if they lived on the same block.

Eventually, Jeffs' draconian measures caught up to him. In 2007, he was arrested outside Las Vegas with his favorite wife, Naomi, 16 cell phones, various wigs and disguises and $55,000 in cash. In 2011, he was convicted of sexually assaulting two underage girls – he claimed they were "spiritual wives" – and sentenced to life in prison. Jeffs continued to control Short Creek from his Texas jail cell, but in 2016, a federal jury dealt a crushing blow to his power when it found both Hildale and Colorado City guilty of housing discrimination and police misconduct, sending in an outside monitor to oversee sweeping reforms to the town government.

While Jeffs was in power, Short Creek was a town that many ran from. But as his stranglehold loosened, the once-banished are running toward it – and with ex-FLDS residents now in the majority, they're hoping to revive the community they once loved. Last year, Hildale staged the first elections in town history, electing Donia Jessop, an ex-FLDS woman, as mayor. RISE, a fair elections group Wall started in early 2017, is currently looking for candidates to repeat the "miracle" in Colorado City this November. No one has formally declared yet, but Wall says several are busy collecting the signatures to do so.

In the process, they've ratcheted tensions between theocracy and democracy to a breaking point. In their ochre-tinged desert valley, the FLDS have taken cover, erecting tall fences and hanging wooden ZION signs above their doors. The idea is to protect themselves from the wicked – but the wicked, increasingly, are right next door. Some of the apostates have kept the signs, but flipped them over, reading NOIZ. It's a fitting image for a place that's been turned upside down.


Terrill Musser never expected
to come back to Short Creek – much less to be leading a grassroots democratic movement. Born and raised in a polygamist FLDS family, Musser fled after refusing to kowtow to Jeffs when Jeffs took over following his father's death in 2002. For years, Musser lived in his car in nearby St. George, Utah, trying to survive in the "gentile" world. But when in 2014 he heard his dad's home was standing empty, he knew it was time to go back. Musser, who suffers from bone cancer, weighed only 90 pounds at the time; doctors said he'd be dead by spring. But he had to try.

When Musser returned, the once-thriving town of his childhood looked apocalyptic – houses empty, businesses shuttered, the town hall locked. But the faithful were still there, and they were still in charge. It took Musser three months to get his utilities turned on, and he worried daily that if his health suddenly deteriorated, the FLDS paramedics would refuse to send an ambulance.

Yet Musser wasn't intimidated. He launched the Short Creek Community Alliance from his sickbed, an online forum for the community to build a better town. The premise was simple, but daunting: persuading people who'd never made a political decision in their lives to sit down with rivals and hammer out a blueprint for democracy. Despite obstacles, the Alliance quickly racked up an impressive resume of firsts. They organized the first protest in the town's history, demanding the reformation of the largely Church-controlled police force. They hosted the first Fourth of July celebration since Jeffs had banned holidays, where they united exiled FLDS children with their mothers. And when the FLDS-controlled town council refused to work with them, they began to plan the first real elections in town history. For Musser, the elections were all about inclusion and accountability. "We the people created this problem," he says. "If we don't like it, we have to fix it. We want people to know that this town can be a community again."


Building an inclusive community
might sound like a sentiment everyone could get behind, but in Short Creek, unifying messages are hard to come by. When ex-FLDS residents approached FLDS women about hosting the town luncheon, Norma Richter agreed, but only because Voices for Dignity, a local nonprofit she trusts, persuaded the middle-aged believer that it would be a good opportunity to build bridges and debut the craft pop-up that VFD had been working with FLDS women to create. But Richter doesn't share Musser's democratic sentiments. "People say they're just making the town great again, but to me it's not great," she says. "It's a completely different place. The spirit of it, the atmosphere. Some streets I don't even want to go down."

Richter is sitting in a chair apart from the lunch hubbub, wearing a long blue prairie dress, gray hair neatly tucked at the nape of her neck. She watches the customers handle jars of jam and handcrafted aprons as she answers my questions. When I ask her how she feels about the luncheon outside, she chooses her words carefully. "I'm glad we're doing it here," she says.

By 'here', Richter means FLDS land. It's a reference to a property battle that dates back to the 1940s, when Church leaders founded a housing trust to administer what they saw as God's land. The United Effort Plan trust held all property in common, with members consecrating their land, businesses and housing to what was essentially the Church. But when members left the faith, the Church kept their property, becoming land-rich at the expense of exiles. In 2005, the state of Utah stepped in, appointing an outside fiduciary to manage trust assets. To stay in their homes, the trust – managed since 2015 by a local board of largely ex-FLDS trustees – requires residents to pay their property taxes, sign an occupancy agreement and pay a nominal fee of $100 a month. But the FLDS have refused to cooperate, saying it violates their religious beliefs to work with apostates. In response, the trust began evictions – so far, of at least 175 homes – and FLDS began flocking out of the community.

The reformed Trust, which is now run by an ex-FLDS Executive Director named Jeff Barlow, says it simply wants to protect trust land for all beneficiaries. "Our goal is not to evict anybody," says Barlow, pointing to the many ways the trust accommodated the FLDS, from working with FLDS-approved third parties to waiving rental fees in cases of financial hardship. Barlow is willing to work with the FLDS, but he believes everyone has to compromise. "We've got to work together," Barlow says. "Whether we like it or not."

The idea makes sense if you believe that Short Creek is a democracy. But for Richter and her fellow believers, it's not. It's God's town, and anyone who defies His chosen leaders defies God. In Richter's opinion, the people coming back to town are thieves, trying to take back something they willingly gave to the Church. "Thou shalt not steal," Richter says, before explaining what she sees as a solution: The state should compensate the FLDS for taking their homes, and offer money to ex-members to move elsewhere. But ex-members argue that Jeffs used religious pretexts to bilk them out of property that was rightfully theirs. The disagreement seems intractable, an ideological chasm between freedom of religion and the rule of law. After all, what law could bridge heaven and earth?


Donia Jessop never intended to run for mayor.
Like Musser, she grew up in Short Creek. Her family practiced polygamy, although Jessop herself married only one man. For years, Jessop loved living in the Creek. But after Jeffs took charge, things changed. Every Sunday, Jeffs banned something new or claimed a new degree of power. It got to the point where Jessop dreaded going to church. And she wasn't alone: In one year, she helped almost two dozen friends and neighbors pack up and flee a town they no longer recognized.

Eventually, Jessop fled, too, landing in the nearby town of Santa Clara, Utah. In Short Creek, the only choice had been obey or go to hell. Now she was signing on a house and putting her kids into local schools. Her life began to feel like her own. But a few years later, Jeffs went to prison and her husband wanted to return to their old town. Jessop agreed, on one condition: she would bring the experience of choice back to the community.

Her opportunity came almost immediately, when the Alliance announced their call for election candidates in January 2017. At first, Jessop was scared. Her neighbors saw her as a wicked apostate. Besides, she was, in her words, "just a chick from the sticks." But then something changed. "The night that they said if you're willing to run, throw your hat in the ring, I knew," she says. "Something settled over me that was like, this is what you're doing next. And I knew I would win."

So Jessop declared her candidacy. She cleaned up voter rolls. She went door-to-door. She joined a democracy study group, poring over the nuts and bolts of running a city. And then the unthinkable happened: she won. On November 7th, 2017, she became Hildale's first ex-FLDS mayor, its first female mayor and its first democratically elected mayor, period. At her victory party, the crowd was electric with excitement. Forty percent had voted for the first time in their lives, and many had cried while filling out ballots. But in the city hall offices across town, the mood was somber. The next day, 11 men resigned from their city posts, saying they refused to work with a woman and an apostate.

Jessop's struggle was only beginning. After her second council meeting, she went into her office and sobbed. She didn't know how to run a city. Two FLDS councilmen refused to come to meetings at all. When Jessop and a fellow councilwoman went through the budget for the first time, one of the men quipped, "Ladies, try to keep up." And when Jessop wanted to appoint a zoning commissioner who shared her broad vision of equality and her practical vision for growing the local economy and getting better water, roads, and infrastructure, the FLDS mayor of Colorado City told her that approach was wrong for Hildale. It was a moment that would normally have shut Jessop up, sending her into a spiral of insecurity. But this time, she stood her ground. "I am Hildale," she told him. "The people voted me in, and I will have a zoning commissioner who shares my vision." For Jessop, it's not just about elections. It's about standing up to an authority she has always feared.


Ideas like this rankle Norma Richter.
She doesn't mind Jessop being mayor, but she thinks she should focus less on grievances and more on fixing potholes. She can't understand why Jessop badmouths Warren Jeffs, or why the ex-FLDS insist on dredging up all the ways they've been hurt by FLDS leaders. It makes Richter suspicious. Just a few years ago, many of these people were believing members, and had no problem with the way the Church did things. "The only thing that changed [for these people] is their perspective on who they are," Richter says.

But for Jessop and Musser, that's exactly the point. More than a platform, they believe residents of Short Creek need a fundamental shift in the way people see themselves. "When I first moved out here and said 'you matter,'" Musser says, "people would look at me point blank and say, 'No I don't.' But when you insist, people start thinking, 'Maybe I do matter. Maybe I do exist.'" Jessop feels the same way. "Hildale had a heart," she says. "Warren Jeffs didn't take a gun out and shoot people. He ripped the heart from their bodies." Jessop and Musser are trying to heal the hearts of residents and of the community, and that means showing up, again and again, building relationships. It's hard work, and in another town they might have given up. But in Short Creek, their enemies are also their family – and for Jessop, it's this bond that's pulling them through this crisis. "[The FLDS] love me," Jessop says, "They just forgot. But I'm standing here no matter what, loving them."

If the FLDS do love people like Jessop, they've got to start remembering it soon. In November, Colorado City will go to the polls for the first time, and the faithful will likely face off against another batch of apostates. This battle is a bigger challenge than Hildale. With a population of nearly 5,000, Colorado City is almost twice as big, the FLDS presence is stronger. But organizers say there's a different mood this time. After Hildale, people don't scoff as much at the idea of government. Instead, they ask how to register to vote.

Regardless of the results, Musser feels like he's done what he came back to Short Creek to do. He didn't die in the spring. Instead, he seemed to get better as the town did, eventually trading in his bed for a wooden cane. And Jessop has stopped flinching when she drives into town. "We are all joined up," she says. "We're not one above the other. We are all on the same level. We are all humans. We have a light and that light is stamping out the darkness."

The battle in Short Creek is far from over, and old enmities are strong. Richter may have made food for the luncheon, but she still doesn't believe in a compromise. Instead, she relies on a higher power. "Heavenly Father knows what we're going through," she says. "Yeah, we'd like Him to [make it] stop, and we hope it's soon. In the meantime, you just have to love." Most people would see that as a rejection, but Musser and Jessop see it as an invitation, a possibility for relationship to overcome ideology. Sure, the FLDS might want God to get rid of them. But still, people are here, at an awkward reunion on a dusty lot, serving macaroni salad across the gap. As Jessop would say, they love each other. They just forgot.