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Short Creek: Beyond FLDS

The community of Short Creek on the Utah-Arizona border is known for being the home to the FLDS church — an extremely strict and insular church that believes in the practice of plural marriage, or polygamy. In recent years, many followers have left or been kicked out of the church, which drastically impacts life in the community. In this series we explore faith, politics, and culture in Short Creek.

Published: Nov. 15, 2017
Reporting by Sarah Ventre | Photos by Jackie Hai

The small city of Hildale, Utah, is just across the state line from Colorado City, Arizona, and together, the two towns make up the community called Short Creek.

Short Creek is most known for being the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — an extremely strict and insular church that believes in the practice of plural marriage, or polygamy. In recent years, many followers have left or been kicked out of the church, which drastically impacts life in the community. In this series we explore the changing faith, politics and culture in Short Creek.

Short Creek: Beyond FLDS - The Complete Series


Chapters I. Church And State II. The Crick III. Apostates IV. You Gotta Have Faith V. Reinvention

Church and State

Short Creek: Beyond FLDS - Part I


The FLDS church has dominated the politics of Short Creek since its inception, until now. In Hildale's first municipal election since the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City were found guilty of religious discrimination in a lawsuit by the Justice Department last year, three city council seats and the mayoral seat were up for election.

Mayoral candidate Donia Jessop works in the kitchen of her new fast food restaurant and convenience store The Hub, 24 hours before the polls close.

Twenty-four hours before the polls closed, mayoral candidate Donia Jessop was busy making burgers, wraps and salads, while her husband Joe worked the drive-thru at their new fast food restaurant and convenience store, The Hub.

Jessop’s mayoral campaign was historic. Not only is she a woman, but she is also an ex-church member, or in FLDS terminology, an apostate.

According to church doctrine, leaving the faith means losing your salvation. It also means being shunned by your family and your community.

Despite all of that, Jessop, and a lot of others who left the church, either stayed or moved back to town. Many of those people are now working to change the community from within.

“For the world to see that we are truly making a change in Hildale, and that Hildale is not the same place it used to be — to have a woman as mayor is a big statement,” Jessop said.

Ex-church members said that in previous elections, the church would decide who would run and there would be no competition. In this election, the non-FLDS candidates were voted on ahead of time in an unofficial primary of sorts. A community alliance got together and decided that since FLDS members are known to vote in a block, it would be best not to split up the non-church vote. That made it so that half the candidates running were FLDS and half were not.

A home near Hildale City Hall showing support for all of the non-FLDS candidates running for office.

The divide between church and non-church members exists throughout the community. According to Jessop, this election was especially personal for most people.

“The people who are currently serving on the town council are our family members,” Jessop said. “So it’s not like we’re going up against strangers. We’re going up against our uncles, our brothers — people that are highly respected. People who I respect.”

Jared Nicol was one of the city council candidates and is a relative newcomer. He moved to Short Creek two and a half years ago from the Salt Lake area.

Hours before the polls closed, he was standing along the highway on the edge of town with his family. He wore a patriotic tie and a leather jacket with an embroidered flag and the letters USA. He and his kids held up signs and waved while trying to get passing cars and trucks to honk in support.

Nicol said he feels like the current city council doesn’t truly listen to the concerns of everyone in the community and that it operates differently than he thinks it should — which is what motivated him to run.

“They do have different ways that you can give information, but it just seems that no one’s really paying attention to what’s coming in,” Nicol said. “They just kind of have an agenda and that’s what’s going to get done.”

Unlike Jessop, Nicol was never a church member. Instead, he is a member of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or Mormon church, which has disavowed the practice of plural marriage, also known as polygamy.

In Short Creek, this makes him a minority.

“I would like to try to get onto the city council, to help give it diversity,” Nicol said. “Because I do believe that diversity is what helps get you the best product ultimately.”

City council candidate Jared Nicol shows off his signature jacket while campaigning just hours before the polls closed on election day.

This election was primarily done by mail-in ballot, and city hall was the only place for in-person voting. Some people showed up there to cast provisional ballots, but for the most part, it was relatively quiet. In the same building as the votes were being cast, is Mayor Philip Barlow’s office.

Barlow is the current mayor of Hildale and is a member of the FLDS church. He was one of the key witnesses in the city’s defense in the Justice Department‘s case last year.

When talking about his vision for the community, he sounds like what many small-town mayors might sound like. His aspirations for the city, at least partially, are to make it feel the way it did in his childhood.

“I’ve grown up in a small town, and I’d like to kind of keep it rural and keep it like it was when I grew up,” Barlow said. “And some of the changes are concerning to me, but, you know, that’s kind of comes with growth. And so it’s hard. Hard to kind of hold it back in some ways but yet, you know, you want it to go the right direction.”

Interestingly, lots of people want the town to feel like it did when they were growing up. But depending on whether or not someone is still a part of the church, that vision can be very different.

One of the many controversies around this election is figuring out exactly who is even eligible to vote.

“I realized that there was a handful of people registered to the address where I lived that had voted in the previous election when I lived there,” said Nicol.

According to Melanie Abplanalp, the Washington County Elections Supervisor, “there is a provision in Utah law for people to pre-challenge voters in a district or a city or a town.”

That is exactly what Nicol and a handful of others in the community who were concerned about possible voter fraud did with a little more than 100 names of people they believed weren’t actually qualified to vote at the address where they were registered. One hundred people is substantial in a city with only 368 registered voters.

“As of the end of the deadline for absentees, which was Nov. 2, we had two voters who could actually prove that they actually resided within the district,” said Abplanalp.

It is unclear why those voters were still on the rolls, and whether this was intentional, or an honest mistake as a result of lots of movement and even evictions in the community. Either way, the process of pre-challenging these names and attempting to clean up the voter rolls was important to candidates like Nicol and Jessop.

TOP: Council chambers in Hildale City Hall. LEFT: A ballot drop box outside the public library in Hildale. RIGHT: Stickers for voters who cast their provisional ballots in-person on election day.

On election night, dozens of people showed up at Jessop’s house to watch the results come in. Her living room and kitchen were decorated in red, white and blue. Kids ran around, while people snacked in the kitchen, chatting and drinking wine. A TV was set up in the living room with the Washington County election results on the screen.

As soon as the polls closed everyone gathered around. And once the unofficial tallies came in, someone read off the totals for each of the non-FLDS candidates running. Every time a victory was announced, there was a cheer.

Then someone read the results of the mayoral election, and the room erupted. People threw their arms in the air, screamed and clapped. Jessop won.

So did Nicol, Maha Layton and JVar Dutson — all of the other non-FLDS candidates. They have their work cut out for them. In addition to repairing the town physically, there’s emotional labor to be done as well.

That night was about celebration though. And everyone toasted, “To change.”

Hear More

Listen to reflections on life in Short Creek by some of its residents.

(Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

The Crick

Short Creek: Beyond FLDS - Part II


Short Creek on the Utah-Arizona border is best known for being home to the FLDS, but the community is in a constant state of change. In recent years, many people have left or been kicked out of the FLDS church, and the community, as well as many of the families within it, are divided. So how did things get to be so complicated in such a small community?

A view of the city of Hildale, Utah, from up on a hill on the north end of town.

Most people aren’t used to calling it Short Creek. The community is often just called Colorado City, which usually connotes one thing — Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs and his family are an important part of this community’s history, but they’re not the whole history. The leader of the FLDS church is currently serving a life sentence for two counts of sexual assault of a child, and the trauma caused by Jeffs goes deep. Now though, many who live in Short Creek are ready to move past that.

“The history here is weird,” said 15-year-old Arya Hammon. “But people don't really realize how fast people here have changed and adjusted to their new lives, and to the new town and how it's changing with them.”

Hammon grew up in Short Creek, which many community members often just refer to affectionately as “The Crick,” and those who are from here, “Crickers.”

Arya Hammon looks out over the landscape in Short Creek.

Hammon’s frustrations echo those of many in the community: Those who aren’t from Short Creek, especially journalists, always seem to get it wrong when it comes to explaining the towns.

To really understand the community, it’s important to understand its complicated and difficult history. In many ways, Short Creek has always been a place for outsiders.

After the mainstream Mormon church condemned the practice of polygamy, fundamentalist Mormons (those who still believe in the principle of plural marriage) were excommunicated and many settled in Short Creek. Since that time, there have been attempts to crack down on polygamy culturally and also through legal action. The community was raided several times, most notably in 1953. Alvin Barlow has lived in the community most of his life and was 15 during the 1953 raid. He still remembers it vividly.

“I stood and watched the officers pull up, shine their lights through the picket fence, jump out [and] a loudspeaker declared, ‘You're all under arrest. Don't anybody move,’” said Barlow. “My grandfather was 84 years old. He stepped out. And he says, ‘If it's blood you want, take mine I'm ready.’”

These raids were traumatic for those who remember them, like Barlow, but also for the community’s collective history. During the Short Creek Raid of 1953, 36 men, 86 women and 263 children were taken into custody. After this, some say the church turned more inward, but was still close knit.

“You know it was a real community, a real village,” said Shirlee Draper, who grew up in Short Creek. She has since left the church, and now lives about an hour away in St. George, Utah, but she still maintains a very active role in the community. Like others, she said she had an idyllic upbringing.

“I tell people I could count on a meal or a spanking from any one of the moms in town. They were all my moms,” said Draper. “And they all made sure I was home after dark.”

Over time, there was fracturing within the community. Things started changing in much bigger ways in the years before FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs’ death.

“When Warren rose to power, which was really even before his father died, that's when things changed drastically,” said Draper, speaking of Warren Jeffs, the son of Rulon Jeffs. Warren Jeffs is known for imposing strict mandates on church followers, and keeping them isolated.

“The more sinister things that really gave me pause were when he [Warren Jeffs] started saying you can't associate with apostates, and you must shun apostates, and really driving a wedge between families,” said Draper.

Apostates is the FLDS term for those who have left or been kicked out of the church. Today, that is a significant number of people. In many cases those “apostates” still can’t speak with family members who are in the church, even if they live just a few houses away.

“He started sending fathers away to repent, and then remarrying the mothers to someone else, and shutting down the public school. I mean all these things were really making me step back and say — ‘Wait a minute, this isn't a religion,’” said Draper.

These kinds of things are what caused lots of people to leave the church, though others weren’t given the choice. Alvin Barlow was sent away five years ago. He went to live in Flagstaff, and has since come back to town.

“This home’s full of memories,” 79-year-old Barlow said from the living room of his house. “I'm not alone here. I'm here with a truckload of memories.”

Barlow also said that change has to happen organically.

“You don't unwrap a rosebud and end up with a beautiful bloom. It has to happen from the inside out,” said Barlow.

TOP: Looking out through the gates surrounding a large house that was built for FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, but is now a privately owned bed and breakfast. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ) LEFT: Alvin Barlow often turns to Biblical quotes and Mormon hymns like this one in his home. (Photo by Jackie Hai - KJZZ) RIGHT: Uzona Avenue is the dividing line between Utah and Arizona. In many places in town, there is no indication that you have crossed into the next state except for a street sign like this one. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

On the north end of Hildale sits a hill that backs up to picturesque canyons, and there are gorgeous, expansive views of the cities and landscape. On top of that hill are grain bins that are no longer being used. Looking down below there is a woman in a prairie dress walking down the street, and coming up the road you can hear someone driving an ATV.

Arya Hammon said she and her friends hang out there sometimes. As a teenager who was never a part of the church, Hammon’s position in the community is somewhat unique, but she sees the big, complex picture.

“It's interesting just how connected everyone is here,” said Hammon. “It's like a spider web. You dangle one string and the entire web is like, ‘Oh my gosh! What's going on?’”

In a lot of ways, the changes happening ripple through the community. There are still struggles. Many people say there are issues with substance abuse, mental health, and suicide, but there are also new gathering places. Hammon was involved in the first ever Colorado City Music Festival earlier this year, and there is a renewed effort for Fourth of July celebrations and Harvest Festival, which are things that went away under Warren Jeffs, which is a name that for many, no longer holds the same power it once did.

Hear More

Listen to reflections on life in Short Creek by some of its residents.


Short Creek: Beyond FLDS - Part III


For anyone, questioning faith is a really difficult process. But imagine being told that the act of questioning or leaving your religion could cost you not only your salvation in the next life, but also your family and community in this one.

That is the reality for those who have left or were kicked out of the FLDS. In FLDS terminology, these individuals are called “apostates.”

In Short Creek there are dozens, or maybe even hundreds of stories from people who left the FLDS church. There are common threads in these narratives, but each story is its own. George and Miriam Jessop are no exception.

"When we made that decision that we were actually going to leave, all of a sudden I had — reason to live,” said Miriam Jessop.

Five years ago, when the Jessops left the church, FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs had imposed strict mandates on followers, and the Jessops adhered to many of them. They homeschooled their kids, they didn’t associate with non-church members, and their entire life was wrapped up in an isolated community. They were also told that leaving meant they were going to hell.

“We were choosing to go to hell, and be happier there than we would be unhappy going to heaven,” said George Jessop.

George and Miriam Jessop talk about their arranged marriage. They say their experience is unique because even though they didn't choose each other, they fell deeply in love and are lucky to have been matched up with one other.

Coming to this conclusion also meant rethinking the entire concept of God.

“After we got out and we realized what was going on, then we realized that God wasn't the bastard that we thought he was,” said George Jessop.

“We didn't like the God that the FLDS had gave us, so we traded it in for a new one,” said Miriam Jessop.

While the Jessops decided to leave, others didn’t choose it. Instead, they were sent away.

“To be real honest, when you're growing up in it, it’s a little bit like boiling the frog,” said Lawrence Barlow, who was told to leave the community around the same time the Jessops left. “You just adapt and improvise and you adjust to the circumstances as you're living it.”

At that time, the rules in the church had become all encompassing. There was to be no internet or non-religious music, and women especially were expected to adhere to a strict dress code. Some married couples were even barred from having sexual relations.

In an extreme move, the church also created an exclusive group for its most righteous members called the United Order. Church leadership interviewed everyone to determine whether or not they were worthy of admission, and often families were split up, with some being admitted and others not. In Barlow’s case, he said everyone in his family was given membership to the United Order, except for him.

George and Miriam Jessop explain their intricate family tree as a way to show how complex and intertwined family and community relationships are in Short Creek. Almost everyone in the community has family members who are both inside and outside of the church.

“I got a phone call from the bishop's office and he came on and read a revelation that I was guilty of everything unforgivable from murder and adultery to denying the Christ,” said Barlow. “And I said, ‘I don't know how it can be true. But I imagine if the Lord says it's true I better go figure out how it could be.’ And he just said, ‘By the voice of your own confession, you're guilty of these things.’”

After that, Barlow was expected to leave the community as soon as possible. His family was told they couldn’t contact him, and in an instant he was on his own. He wanted to drive away as far as he could, but he wrecked his car and ended up in Salt Lake City.

“It still took a year of some of the hardest experiences of my life to really accept the fact that this was this was contrary to the word and work of God,” said Barlow of his time away.

He moved back to Short Creek about three and a half years ago to take care of his wife who had a stroke. They have a good relationship now, but it took time to heal with her, and with many people, both inside and outside the church.

“The experience of leaving the church is something that just kind of happens to you,” said Barlow. “It’s like sliding down the slide. You just — it’s that bump at the end that gets you. Then you get the painful process of climbing the hill again.”

TOP: Cottonwood Park is the site of the Fourth of July festivals that the Jessops organize. The park's current renovation is just one of the improvement projects that Jessop and others hope to see in the community. LEFT: Elissa Wall wrote a book about her time in the FLDS church and her arranged marriage when she was just 14 years old. Despite her experiences as part of the church, she moved back to Short Creek and also has her own business based there. RIGHT: Lawrence Barlow was sent away from the church but came back to town, and has worked to rebuild his relationships in the community.

Elissa Wall was born and raised in the FLDS church until she was about 18 years old. She describes the church as a cult, and may be the most well-known ex-FLDS member as a result of a lawsuit she brought against Warren Jeffs for his role in forcing her to marry her first cousin in an arranged marriage when she was just 14 years old.

“The way that that happened was very much against my will, and it was a very painful and difficult time of my life,” said Wall. “The years that followed were incredibly abusive physically, mentally and sexually.”

For those who are still devout, Wall could easily be seen as the worst kind of apostate. Not only did she leave the church, but she worked to bring down its powerful leader, and her lawsuit was successful.

“I realized that I had to do it for me just as much as I had to do it for the next young girl,” said Wall. “Because I still had that little broken girl inside. I still had that little girl that hadn't been listened to for her entire life. And if I didn't stand up for her, who was going to stand up for her? And who was going to stand up for the next, and the next, and the next?”

Even with her strong convictions, it has been far from easy for Wall. Her mother, and many more of her family members, are still in the church — and she hasn’t spoken to them in over a decade.

In Cottonwood Park, George Jessop holds the gift he was given commemorating the 2015 Fourth of July festival.

“It's just a very difficult realization of realizing that they don't have the option to love me, because it threatens their own — their very existence as they know it,” said Wall with tears in hear eyes. “And I hope that changes someday. I hope that I can look my mother in her eyes before she passes away, and thank her for the good things that she did give me, and heal the things that we have yet to heal.”

Even after everything that happened, Wall, just like Barlow, came back to Short Creek.

“I had to face the demons that I thought resided here, that had tortured me for so many years of my life. And it was kind of a stubborn determination that I was more than those shadows. I was more than those demons,” said Wall.

George and Miriam Jessop never actually left the community. They wanted to, but as the parents of 12 children, they couldn’t afford it. They did put their kids back in public school, which is something the church had told them not to do. Even though they were in Short Creek, close to all of their friends and family members, they lost most of their social network for about a year.

“All of a sudden, nobody came over,” said Miriam Jessop. “There were no friends. The people that were visiting you last Sunday — you never saw them again.” Over time, the Jessops built back up a circle of friends, including others who also left the church. For them, rebuilding community has been deeply important. They even started a nonprofit to put on a Fourth of July event, and they hope to eventually have harvest festivals again in the fall.

This might not seem like a big deal, but in a place where patriotic celebrations were banned, that is a radical act. So while it’s part of remaking themselves, it’s also part of remaking the community.

Hear More

Listen to reflections on life in Short Creek by some of its residents.

You Gotta Have Faith

Short Creek: Beyond FLDS - Part IV


Historically, the FLDS has been the most prominent religious presence in Short Creek. In recent years, the small community has become much more religiously diverse as people have left or been kicked out of the church. Now there are several faiths present in a place that was once dominated by just one.

On Sunday mornings, Brody and Liz Olson’s home is open to the community. On this particular day, a couple dozen people gather together for song, prayer and Bible study.

The Olsons moved to Short Creek about five and a half years ago and established an evangelical Christian ministry. It’s not a church yet, but Brody Olson hopes that one day it will be. Short Creek may seem like an unlikely choice for an evangelical Christian minister to go, but Brody Olson said that for him, it made sense.

Liz and Brody Olson run an evangelical Christian group in Short Creek, and hope to establish a church. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

“Rather than go where there are other Christian people, let's go to a place where there aren't any Christians,” said Brody Olson.

His group is mostly made up of Christians from outside the community, who have come to join him and be a part of “church planting,” which is the process of establishing a new church.

“When we first got here, it was mainly just meeting some of the physical, material needs that people had, with the hope that eventually we may build relationships and be able to speak to other, like maybe spiritual matters of their lives,” said Brody Olson.

Olson, and several others, have noticed that for those leaving the FLDS church there is something of a spiritual vacuum in Short Creek. While some ex-FLDS members choose to be nonreligious, there are some who are looking for an organized spiritual community to be a part of.

TOP: Those attending Bible study at Brody and Liz Olson's home take communion. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ) LEFT: Worshipers bow their heads in prayer on a Sunday morning at Brody and Liz Olson's home, which functions as a space for religious gatherings while they work to establish a church in the community. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ) RIGHT: A small group of musicians plays music for those in attendance. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

Reverend Brian Mackert grew up in the FLDS church and was one of 31 children in his family, which included his father’s four wives. Mackert said his father was sexually abusive to his sisters when he was growing up, and as a way to get away from the community, Mackert joined the military, where became a born-again Christian.

“I was a drug addict. I was an alcoholic. I was a womanizer. I was scum. I didn't even like myself,” said Mackert. “I was trying to fill an empty hole. And that void has now been filled by the love of Christ.”

Some of the clothes gathered for community members at Short Creek Family Services, a nonprofit that Reverend Brian Mackert runs with his family. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

Like Brody Olson, Mackert also didn’t expect to end up in Short Creek. But he learned that some evangelicals in Asia send indigenous pastors back to their own communities, because they know the language and cultural norms.

“I realized God was calling me back to my people, and I fought with him for quite a while about that, because I didn't want to go back to the people who had been so abusive to me in my childhood,” said Mackert.

Theologically, Mackert and Olson have similar messages, but they take different approaches. Mackert runs a food pantry and organizes clothing drives. Brody Olson runs youth activities and a thrift store with his wife. And they both say they’ve found resistance among community members to their efforts. They think many ex-FLDS members are skeptical of religion because they’ve had traumatic experiences in the FLDS church.

“What I try and do is help people understand that God does love them. He's not this monstrous, overbearing God that's just waiting to crush them,” said Mackert.

Reverend Brian Mackert, an evangelical minister who grew up in the FLDS church and is now a born-again Christian, in his office in Colorado City. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

For many, going from FLDS to evangelical Christian is a big leap. Some find the mainstream Mormon (LDS) Church a better fit since it’s familiar, but the mainstream Mormon church rejects the practice of polygamy. This can be hard for ex-FLDS members, particularly if they’re still in a plural family and no longer have the support of a church. Polygamy is illegal, and is taboo in mainstream society, which leaves a number of people in something of a cultural no man’s land.

While many in the community are in a place of spiritual transition, the LDS Church has missionaries assigned to Short Creek, but wouldn’t agree to an interview for this story. There are also those who look to be a part of another fundamentalist Mormon group, which practices the principle of plural marriage. There is one in the community led by William Jessop (not to be confused with Warren Jeffs’ former bodyguard, Willie Jessop).

“Our effort is to remember the true and correct principles, and that is we believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men,” said William Jessop.

William Jessop was part of the FLDS church until 2011. At one time he was the bishop of Short Creek, and he is now the prophet of his own group, though he’s reluctant to call himself that.

“The prophet Joseph Smith — if anybody’s a student of his of his works and his efforts, said that a prophet is one who has a testimony of Jesus Christ. And I do have a testimony of Jesus Christ,” said William Jessop.

William Jessop, who now leads his own fundamentalist "church effort" in Short Creek, stands next to a picture of his family at his home.

William Jessop and his family have a long and complicated history with the community. His biological father broke away decades ago, and was one of the founders of the Centennial Park group, which says they were never part of the FLDS church. Rather, they were a part of the group that later became the FLDS church after a doctrinal split.

William Jessop claims his religious authority from his adoptive father, Fred Jessop, who he said gave him a directive a few days before he died. That directive came two years before William Jessop got a phone call from imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs in 2007. In that call, Jeffs told William Jessop that Jeffs had done terrible things.

“He said he was one of the most wicked men on the earth since father Adam and other details that to me — I didn't know why, and that point it was quite a shock,” said William Jessop.

Nine months after that call, the church sent William Jessop away to repent. He came back to Short Creek in 2011 and started what he describes as a “church effort.”

According to William Jessop, attendance varies, but it’s more than 40 people every time. William Jessop, like many fundamentalists, considers himself Mormon, and believes in practicing Mormonism the way Joseph Smith did, which includes the principle of plural marriage. His group is similar in some ways to the FLDS, though they’re much less closed, much less restrictive, and William Jessop said they don’t perform underage marriages.

“I don't want to say that I'm associated with FLDS if it associates — if people in their mind have it associated with Warren Jeffs,” said William Jessop.

It’s a challenge to distinguish themselves as a fundamentalist group in Short Creek that is not FLDS, and it’s also a challenge for many who are looking to find a religious group that feels right, after they left one that no longer did.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to clarify William Jessop's relationship with Fred Jessop.

Hear More

Listen to reflections on life in Short Creek by some of its residents.


Short Creek: Beyond FLDS - Part V


As more people leave the FLDS church, they also leave the support network and social structure that comes with it. Two women who left the church are now leading efforts to provide assistance to others doing the same.

When Shirlee Draper left the FLDS church 14 years ago, she was alone.

“All of my family, all of my friends, all of my structure, my sense of belonging — my very identity was caught up in this community. And I literally had nothing on the outside,” said Draper. “I had no resources. I had no money. I had no way to support me and my four kids and two of whom are special needs.”

Draper took her kids and left her husband and the rest of her family, and moved to nearby St. George, Utah, which is about an hour away. Coming out of the FLDS church comes with lots of challenges. Many people from Short Creek say that the community faces high rates of poverty, substance abuse and suicide.

Looking north toward Short Creek. The city of St. George, Utah is about an hour northwest on Utah State Route 59. (Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)

When Draper left, she had little money, no credit and no rental history, which made finding an apartment as a single mom really difficult. Draper said that social issues and dealing with the stereotypes people have about polygamous communities are in some ways even more difficult than the economic troubles.

“I would be in Walmart looking around thinking, ‘I wonder if one of these people would be my friend — I wonder how I could fit in here.’ And I would turn around and find my cart full of condoms, which is the message that you ‘plygs’ have too many kids and you’ve got to learn how to control yourselves,” said Draper. “And then I’d be at the check out and somebody would say, ‘Oh, is the government going to pay for this too? Because we know how you guys all out there are abusing the welfare system.’”

It took Draper about five years to feel settled in St. George and to establish a community, build her own identity and have friends. She found that others who left the church were coming to her asking for advice about how to navigate life outside the insular community, especially because many of the organizations working with those who had left the church were started by outsiders. Draper felt many of them were exploitative, and either tried to bring ex-FLDS members into another religion or made a public show of personal details.

Shirlee Draper is the Resource Development Director for Cherish Families, an organization that works with those who come from plural communities and face unique challenges.

“People would come to me and they're like, ‘Well, I can trust you ‘cause you're not going trot me up on the Capitol steps and have a press conference with my face,’” said Draper.

After assisting people on her own for several years, Draper started working with Cherish Families, an organization that specializes in assisting those who have left polygamous, or plural, communities.

One of its founders and all of its employees come from plural families, and they work to connect people with vital resources, including mental health services. The organization also does cultural competency trainings for people who aren’t as familiar with plural communities.

“The word polygamy really is an epithet now,” said Draper. “And that's a social construction, but it's hurled at the population and the population doesn't believe it practices polygamy. It believes it practices plural marriage, and there is a distinction to the population.”

Those distinctions can be the difference between someone feeling like they belong or not.

Cherish Families also runs programs for those who have left the church and may be especially vulnerable to assault and abuse. They focus on healthy relationships and self-protection for women and girls.

Leona Bateman also left the FLDS and believes this support and empowerment, particularly for women and girls, is crucial.

“Every youth story that I've heard about getting raped or abused — the girls still think it's their fault,” said Bateman. “They think it's their fault because they left. They think it's their fault because they didn't obey their parents. They think these bad things happen to them because we're told our whole lives that if you leave you're going to hell and bad things are going to happen to you. But bad things do start happening to you because you’re experiencing a lot more things than being in a little tiny box.”

Bateman started her own organization called Creekers Foundation. It focuses on providing peer support, as well as mentoring and youth programs for those coping with leaving the church.

Bateman’s son was kicked out and later committed suicide, which is something that both Bateman and Draper said is common.

When Bateman’s son was first kicked out, she and her family didn’t leave with him, and he was ostracized as an “apostate.”

“When you're all secluded in the FLDS, it [wasn’t] all bad. Believe me, it's [an] easier lifestyle than what I’m living right now,” said Bateman. “Then you don't have to make any decisions. So if your son gets kicked out for doing something bad or whatever, you don't ever take the blame upon yourself. You think, ‘Oh, well, I was just doing what I was told. So the blame is on them.’ But the minute you feel empowered you realize that every decision that you make, you’re responsible for.”

Leona Bateman is the founder of the Creekers Foundation, which runs mentoring and peer support programs for those who have left the FLDS church in Short Creek.

For Bateman, creating spaces for support and sharing experiences has been very meaningful. While many of her programs are in person, she also started Facebook groups for community members to reunite and tell their stories.

“I've really realized that the storytelling is healing. And not only that, it brings us together. We have girls that have been kicked out of this town for 10 or 15 years that can go to this group, even if they're in New York, and reconnect and find their mothers and find their sisters,” said Bateman, who hopes to channel her experiences into something positive. In some ways she sees the present as an opportunity to make up for the past.

“What we're going through now is nothing compared to what I watched my sisters and brothers go through that left,” said Bateman. “They had no contact with [anybody]. The world wasn't aware of what [was] going on, and we couldn't have anything to do with them. And this in some ways is my repentance. It's paying them back for all the people that in some ways I abandoned.”

Now Bateman has returned. She, Draper and others are working to create a new vision for the community — one where no one feels alone.

Hear More

Listen to reflections on life in Short Creek by some of its residents.

Reporting: Sarah Ventre
Editor: Mark Moran
Digital: Jackie Hai, Sky Schaudt
Graphic Design: Ambar Favela
Research: Lillian Donahue

Sarah Ventre was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2018.