Town once run by polygamist leader is sharply divided

Brady McCombs
Associated Press

Hildale, Utah — As polygamist leader Warren Jeffs awaited his fate in a Texas prison, he sent an order to his followers on the Utah-Arizona border: Build me a new compound.

Hundreds of men worked around the clock for three months to construct a mammoth, two-story edifice with dozens of rooms. It was encircled by a 15-foot wall of special white cement. The carpets were turquoise, just as he liked.

At the time, in 2010, Jeffs believed God would allow him to return to live with his wives and children in a village of 7,700 at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs. But that never happened.

Nearly four years after Jeffs was sentenced to life for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides, his compound is being converted into a bed and breakfast — a symbol of the changes overtaking the community he once led. Today, the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are split between loyalists who still believe Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society.

Jeffs’ compound is being converted by his former bodyguard, Willie Jessop, who for years defended the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. In defiance of some of Jeffs’ rules, he now flies the American flag, keeps the gate open and has torn down part of the wall — all meant as clear signals that there is life after Jeffs in this divided place 300 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Down the block from the compound, kids can be heard on the playground at a public school that opened this fall for the first time in 13 years. Around the corner stand abandoned houses where the state recently evicted Jeffs followers who refused to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees.

Twenty-four other families are receiving deeds to their homes — a first for a community where nearly all the houses have belonged to sect leaders since 1942.

Still, those small changes are overshadowed by indications that Jeffs’ flock remains large and loyal. The Hildale and Colorado City town councils are filled with Jeffs loyalists. The 190 children at the Hildale public school are only a fraction of the town’s estimated 1,200 school-aged kids. Many sect members still follow Jeffs’ edict not to send their children to class.

Towering brick walls with no-trespassing signs surround many of homes that resemble small motels. “Zion” signs hang above dozens of front doors in a nod to the religion’s belief in creating a heaven on earth.

Women and girls wearing prairie dresses with up-do hairstyles can be seen around town, pumping gas and driving tractors. They often run and hide when they see outsiders. Men drive trucks with windows tinted so dark you can’t tell who is inside.

Though he’s been in jail in Utah or Texas continually since 2006, Jeffs is believed to still rule the FLDS through letters and phone calls from prison. One of his brothers, Lyle Jeffs, is here and makes sure Jeffs’ commandments are carried out. To his followers, roughly estimated to be about 6,000, he is a prophet who speaks for God and can do no wrong.

“To have it exposed that the leader was engaged in such horrific, immoral acts was a really dark place not only for me and my family but the entire community,” said Jessop, who left in 2011. “That’s why you see such a fractured situation as people try to come to grips with what he’s in prison for. It’s easier for people to put it under religious persecution than the reality of why he’s actually in there.”

Doran Jessop, a member of the FLDS and the Hildale City Council, said Jeffs is in prison for advocating the principles of Christ. Asked about the sexual assault convictions, he said if Jeffs has “done anything like that, it was directed toward the Lord.”

The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church and its 15 million members worldwide abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibit it.

The community is a patchwork of upscale, elegant residences and unfinished, dilapidated houses that remain just as they were in the early 2000s, when Jeffs ordered that all construction stop in Utah to focus on building his compound in Texas.

Uncertainty hovers over everybody, followers and defectors alike, because the homes they live in that used to be controlled by a church trust have been in the hands of Utah officials since 2005. A state judge recently created a board that will soon begin the messy task of sorting out who gets deeds to more than 700 homes in the community estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

Sect leaders have been moving people from home to home for years, said Katie Cox, a longtime resident and member of the community’s housing board.

Cox was one of two dozen people recently given deeds to their houses. She said granting home ownership has offered hope that sect leaders will be unable to control people by way of their houses.

“It’s a symbol of freedom. It’s a symbol that we are part of this United States,” said Cox, holding her framed deed, wearing modern clothes and listening to Frank Sinatra croon a Christmas song. “For so long, it seemed like we had our own little Soviet Union here.”

Like many polygamous families who settled here, the Coxes fled Salt Lake City out of fear of prosecution under Utah’s bigamy law. Cox, her husband, another wife and 21 combined children moved to this enclave in the late 1960s.

Echoing a common sentiment among defectors, Cox reminisces about a quaint little community during the 1970s and early 1980s. Although most Mormons eschew alcohol, they created a vineyard and garden and donated wines and onions to the church’s storehouse. Then the environment started changing.

By the time Jeffs and his father decided to move a segment of the group from the Salt Lake City area to the Utah-Arizona border, the Coxes had left the sect.

Jeffs took over after his father suffered a stroke and soon began ousting men from the sect. Many were told they had broken church rules and were forced to leave their families, homes and belongings behind. Wives and children were reassigned. So many young men have been forced out that they came to be known as the “Lost Boys.”

In a series of lawsuits and court filings, federal and state officials have accused the towns of denying housing and municipal services to residents who live outside the sect and using the police to enforce discrimination.

A jury in Arizona recently ruled in favor of one family who sued over a denied water hookup. The couple is set to receive about $3 million as a part of a settlement. A civil rights lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department is pending.

At a recent town hall meeting organized by the Arizona attorney general in Colorado City, sheriff’s deputies instructed people to call specific dispatch numbers, rather than 911, to ensure they get help from county authorities rather than town police who they say are beholden to FLDS leaders. Attorneys for the towns have denied any wrongdoing and say there is no basis for the accusation.

Ron Rohbock was kicked out in 2002, despite having worked alongside Jeffs at the sect’s school in the Salt Lake City area as vice principal. He was also one of Rulon Jeffs’ bodyguards. The general contractor said he purchased $2 million in supplies with his own line of credit to fix up homes in preparation for the massive move of people from Salt Lake to the Utah-Arizona border.

After he was ousted, he had to file for bankruptcy and contemplated suicide. He eventually married a harpist in Las Vegas and traveled the world with her before she died. His new wife, a former therapist from Las Vegas, has helped him finally deal with the trauma he endured. The couple recently returned to Hildale to buy a large house Rohbock and his sons helped build. The couple is fixing it up and hopes to sell it — maybe to a member of a different polygamist group that lives in a nearby community. They don’t plan to stay.

“I continually blamed myself and thought I was going to go to hell because they tell you that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” Rohbock said. “But I can tell you: This is hell. It can’t get worse this. If this is heaven, you don’t want anything to do with it.”

But some former members of the FLDS are coming back, said Cox and Darin Thomas, principal of the school that reopened.

“This is a nice place to live if you don’t have somebody with their thumb on you telling you what you have to do,” Cox said.

More changes lie ahead. The public school has plans to put a gymnasium in a giant building once used by the sect as a storehouse. School officials want to field high school volleyball and basketball teams, hoping sports will convince more families to send their kids to school. More evictions of FLDS houses and businesses are scheduled, too, and the new board may begin redistributing houses.

But nobody believes the Jeffs group will vanish anytime soon, if ever.

Doran Jessop was recently evicted after failing to pay occupancy fees on his house. He has no home or plan but remains a loyal follower of Jeffs.

“I don’t know whether we are going to start living in tents or what we’re going to do,” Doran Jessop said. “Whatever it takes.”