IN GOD WE TRUSTED
Warren Jeffs’ Polygamist Cult Once Controlled This Town. Now It’s Launching a Democracy From Scratch
Hildale has a new mayor—an apostate and, even more shocking, a woman.
In September, the desert town of Hildale, a community of 2,000 or so, squished along Utah’s southern border, erupted into an amazingly ferocious battle, centered around a propane tank. The tank was a huge white whale of a thing, roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. One Tuesday, the tank owners, a married couple named Debbie and Lee Steed, were cooking chicken fajitas, until, suddenly, they weren’t. Outside, utility officials were hauling away the couple’s primary source of fuel, holding hundreds of gallons of propane. “This might sound like every sob story ever,” Debbie later told a local paper, “but my oven was half heated up, and I had stuff in the pan, and the burner went off.”
Propane tanks are at a premium in Hildale, an isolated city, hemmed in by mountains on one side and desert plains on the other. There are no grocery stores, no cinemas, no florists, no banks. It is a place where self-sufficiency is key, which is why the Steeds bought the thing back in 2000, and why they used it almost every day, until the town utility manager, an earnest newcomer named Harrison Johnson, arranged to cart it off. Furious, the Steeds responded with the diplomacy of an unhinged Yelp reviewer. They hung a block-long banner on the area’s main street, where it stayed for some two weeks, announcing, in towering scarlet letters: “Harrison Johnson is a THIEF.”
Even without billboards, news in Hildale travels fast. At the city council meeting that month, locals poured in and seethed over due process, private property, bully tactics, government overreach, and the tiny technicalities of utility contract law. In most places, this kind of dispute wouldn’t amount to much more than a minor bureaucratic annoyance. But if the tension in Hildale was about a tank, then Citizen Kane was about a sled.
At the heart of the dispute lay a history that has animated every feud since the city’s founding. It concerned the fact that, for over a century, Hildale has been home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), an offshoot of Mormonism which continues to practice polygamy. But seven years ago, its most recent leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to life in prison for raping a 12-year-old girl, the youngest of his 80-plus “spiritual wives.” Jeffs’ downfall sent shock waves across the country and fissures through the community—some stuck with him; others shunned him. The effects are still felt in every aspect of the city’s daily life. Now, no concert, no ballgame, no zoning law, no propane tank removal takes place outside the shadow of Jeffs’ legacy. As one official put it: “In Hildale, every single, solitary action is colored by the conflict.” A city councilman phrased it differently: “It’s all tied up, pardon my language, in the same old shit.”
Jeffs’ influence didn’t end with his arrest in 2006. His followers have hung on, following covert orders for more than a decade. And while the directives from Jeffs’ jail cell have dwindled, in 2016 the Department of Justice found the Hildale government guilty of discriminating against “apostates,” exiled members of the church, in matters of policing, housing, and utilities. The town appealed the decision, pouring tax dollars into lawyers and litigation, quibbling, according to city staffers, over interpretations of a few minor words.
But last year, Hildale underwent a sea change. The city held an election and an apostate won. Worse: the new leader was a woman. With a margin of 48 votes, Donia Jessop became the first female mayor, not only in Hildale, but in the entire county. She also became, in the view of many, the first real elected official the city has ever had. The new mayor embraced the DOJ decision. A mother of eight with high cheekbones and a soft blonde bob, Jessop had felt church discrimination first-hand. She’d fled the town in 2012, but returned to Hildale after the DOJ decision. When she took office, she dropped the town’s appeal. She started overhauling city operations, breaking with tradition and the church. “They think I’ve gone off the deep end,” she told me.
This month marks the anniversary of Jessop’s first year in office, a year of extreme political uncertainty—the first one after all of the town’s problems, all its aspirations, all its latent prejudices and fears had been laid bare; the first chance at rebirth after an eccentric authoritarian eroded their norms and institutions beyond recognition. That’s the context that in which the tank issue arose. The uproar unfolded at a moment when life in Hildale seemed poised to change, reviving doubts about whether it ever could.
But the essential conflict underlying Debbie’s tank dispute traces all the way back to the mid 19th century, a few decades after a charismatic zealot named Joseph Smith placed a magical, egg-shaped rock in the basin of a hat, buried his face inside it, and translated the scripture that became The Book of Mormon. He started a religion and almost immediately spawned a subculture, one whose faith, for better or for worse, the people of Hildale are still hashing out.
In 1890, a Fundamentalist sect split off from the mainstream Mormon congregation. The schism concerned a chunk of church doctrine called “Section 132,” which was a little more salacious than its sounds. The revelation, written in Joseph Smith’s second sacred text, Doctrines & Covenants, is a flowery 66-paragraph treatise, with more than one verily, that gets to the gist around graf 61: “If any man espouse a virgin and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified.” It’s the section, in other words, where Smith gives polygamy the go-ahead. (By the way, he writes, if women take other husbands, they “shall be destroyed.”)
Smith himself had married uncounted dozens of “spiritual wives,” although the practice was not widespread among Mormons until 1852, eight years after Smith was killed by a mob over his appetite for 14-year-olds. But by the late 19th century, the church was under extreme financial pressure from the federal government to bring the institution to an end. In 1890, the Mormon Church banned polygamy. But many men were unwilling to give up “celestial marriage,” as some called it, or their “plural families,” as they’re called today. Forced out of most Mormon pockets in the Southwest, some of these fringe families found their way to a small homestead on the Utah-Arizona border, where they could run their large households without intervention. They called the community Short Creek.
Short Creek was suited for under-the-radar living in several ways: It straddled state lines, making it not quite the problem of either government, and it was remote. Most of the town sat in the dry, unpopulated expanse known as the Arizona Strip, cut off in the north by a range of steep cliffs, and in the south by the Grand Canyon. A governor once described the town as the “most isolated of all Arizona communities.”
As cut off as it was, the hidden homestead would not escape notice. The town’s early years were interrupted by periodic government raids—an onslaught that hardened their mistrust of outsiders. The first attack came in 1939, when Utah authorities arrested two prominent local polygamists for “unlawful cohabitation.” Then, in 1944, U.S. Marshals raided Short Creek and a similar community in Salt Lake City, charging 46 people with a range of offenses, including conspiracy and an abstruse interpretation of obscenity law. Nine years later, at about 4 a.m. on July 26, 1953, a near-militia of 102 Arizona officers stormed the town, sirens blaring, in what became the largest attack the polygamists had ever seen. The authorities carted off most men and several women. They boarded all the children on to buses, declared them wards of the state, and drove them to Phoenix, Arizona. In total, 263 minors were separated from their families. Of these children, some wouldn’t see their parents for as long as two years. Some never saw them again.
The raid, which made national headlines, came at the directive of Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, who accused the settlement of “statutory rape, bigamy, open and notorious cohabitation.” Anti-polygamy platforms had done well in the past, but when images of crying kids spread across the country, Pyle’s popularity plummeted. He was voted out of office the next year.
In Short Creek, the raid had the opposite effect: it bound the community by trauma. A 1972 history of the settlement written by local high-school students notes: “Their religion held them together, so they weren’t upset in their goals by religious persecution. They were religiously persecuted because their religion was different, and because they practiced it so diligently that it irritated all those who didn’t understand the reason.”
Still, the national attention tainted the Short Creek name. By 1962, when the community incorporated to tap into state electric and sewage systems, they went with different branding. The majority of the town was in Arizona; they called that area Colorado City. The narrow sliver that spilled over into Utah took a different title: Hildale.
As any apostate will point out, Warren Jeffs was not from Hildale. He was an outsider, born in Sacramento, California, and raised in a Fundamentalist pocket five hours north of Short Creek, on a massive compound with some 50 siblings. As an adult, Jeffs, a soft-spoken, stick-bug-looking guy, worked as a school principal for decades (where he allegedly molested many students, according to Sam Brower’s extensive investigation into Jeffs, Prophet’s Prey). He moved to Short Creek in the mid-1990s to help his father, Rulon Jeffs, then leader of the Fundamentalist Church, convert the town from a small fringe community into an American banana republic.
After his father was incapacitated by a stroke in the late ’90s, Jeffs simply stepped in and took over his duties. When Rulon finally died, Warren held a bizarre, unprecedented, quasi-coronation: placing a portrait of his father on a chair, then sitting in it himself, and declaring, mystically, to the crowd, “Father is still with us!” As his father incarnate, Jeffs then wedded his dad’s 20-some surviving wives, effectively marrying his stepmothers.
Soon after taking power, Warren began ruling with manic authority. He took his style of leadership from Hitler, a tyrant he reportedly admired. (According to multiple ex-Church members, Jeffs often said the only thing wrong with the Holocaust was that Hitler lacked divine authority.) He groomed children in groups called the Missionary Program, which multiple sources likened to Hitler Youth; he rewarded loyalists by giving them more—and increasingly younger—wives; and he exiled his enemies in earnest. In one infamous Church meeting, Jeffs called out the names of 20 prominent polygamist men, ordered them to stand before the entire congregation, accused them of fire-and-brimstone-sounding Biblical crimes, from “sinning against the Holy Ghost” to “denying the divinity of Christ,” banished them to “repent from afar,” and redistributed their wives like chattel.
As his control of the town hardened, Jeffs began enforcing regulations as wide-ranging as they were absurd. He banned television, toys, games, movies, pets, dancing, the internet, music, swimming, holidays from Christmas to the Fourth of July, and the color red (Jesus would supposedly wear that shade when he returned for the Rapture). He aggressively married teen girls, impregnating them in what he called “heavenly sessions,” and held many prisoner in various homes around Hildale or on his custom-built Texas ranch (a structure so big, its floors were measured in acres, according to one townsperson who helped build it). Jeffs’ 65th wife, a woman named Briell Decker, who married the prophet at age 18 and escaped seven years later (one of only two known women to do so), recalled that her husband had so many wives, in so many places, he doled out 6-digit serial numbers just to keep track of everyone—wife number, building number, room number. “I’m not actually sure how many [wives] there were,” Decker said. “I say 79... But there was 70-something or 80-whatever.”
By the mid-2000s, Jeffs’ crimes had grown so numerous—from sapping public programs (an age-old Short Creek practice known as “bleeding the beast”), to sexually abusing his nephew, to impregnating a 12-year old—that they unleashed a series of legal entanglements which ultimately forced him to flee. Jeffs spent a year on the lam with his brother and favorite wife, and months on the FBI’s Most Wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden. In November of 2007, a Las Vegas police officer conducting a routine traffic stop found him calmly eating salad in the backseat of a red sedan. In his car, the officer turned up a smattering of burner phones, computers and gadgets, thousands of dollars in cash, multiple credit cards, and three wigs.
Even after he went to prison, Jeffs’ control over the town didn’t slack. Through various figureheads, he was able to attack enemies and squeeze every ounce of support from his followers, by way of donations and an arrangement the Church called “consecrated labor,” although some locals described it differently. (“That’s a code word for ‘slave labor,’” one councilman said.) Under Jeffs’ system, Church members donated their time and effort to town projects, working grueling hours—some recalled getting as little as two hours’ sleep—entirely without pay.
In one extreme power flex, Jeffs commanded his followers to build a 14-bedroom mansion in just one month, as a sacrifice to God so he might “throw down the walls of Jericho,” as one bishop put it, and help Warren escape prison. The whole town worked from Christmas into late January. “We didn’t sleep for 30 days,” said one resident. “And it was bitter freakin’ cold.” (As it turned out, Warren did not walk free; the mansion is now a B&B.)
But as Hildale begins to reclaim autonomy, one of the longest-lasting impacts of Jeffs’ reign isn’t just in the architecture or the emotional injuries, it’s in the founding values of the town, that Jeffs, just some outsider from Sacramento, effectively turned upside down.
This past December, a few months after the tank debacle, the Hildale city council met at the town hall, a brick, ’60s-era prefab on the west side, for the final meeting of Jessop’s first year in office. It was a cold night and already pitch black, but some 20 citizens turned out. Jessop, an easy conversationalist with the air of someone who throws a good party, chatted with her constituency over soup, cocoa, and cookies, before calling the council to order.
As with all things in Hildale, where propane tank-type wars are commonplace, each agenda item arrived with some echo of the town’s past. But none smacked more of symbolism than Strategic Item A, a seemingly unassuming item, but one poised to inaugurate a new era in Hildale. The task, subtitled “Consideration and Possible Action on Resolution Adopting A New Mission/Value Statement,” required the council to rewrite, edit and approve their mission statement, vision statement, and declaration of values. Behind the bureaucratic jargon, the council was asking a quietly monumental question: what, exactly, should our city be?
The stakes were high because, as may now be clear, Hildale had never had a real democracy. After the two sides of Short Creek incorporated, each city had a mayor, a council, and a town clerk, among other things. But they were always controlled by the church. The positions were held by clergy. The meetings took place in the bishop’s house. When voting came around, there was never more than one candidate on the ballot (in state and national elections, Jessop told me, someone would slip her a piece of paper, instructing how to choose). As one staffer put it: “This thing called Hildale city was just a formality.” Outside the city council, the Church oversaw the police force, the fire department, the utilities, the schools, the health clinic, the money, the housing, and the food.
Even after the Department of Justice appointed monitors to oversee government activity in Hildale and Colorado City, change was still slow. The mayors, council members, and city staffs were beholden to the Church, with ears cocked to Jeffs’ jail cell. “Everything in Hildale then was obstructed by town hall,” Jessop said. “They tried to bring in a health center, and the mayor said no. Any kind of growth or repair, the mayor said no.”
Even now, Colorado City remains locked in an appeal process with the DOJ, and sources say all but one member of its city council are faithful to the Church (Colorado City Mayor Joseph Allred declined to comment). That’s what makes Hildale’s move toward democracy so unlikely: they are literally the little guy, the tiny section of settlement overflowing into Utah, less than a third the size of Colorado City, pushing back against neighbors, friends, family and a hundred years of government-hating history.
Fortunately, Jessop isn’t running her revolution alone. In the election last year, the town also voted in three secular council members, all of whom had once been exiled by Jeffs. Not long after their term began, the city made even more room for secularists, when two Fundamentalists still on the council, Doran and Brian Jessop, left the government in a huff.
The pair were relatives—not uncommon in a small town where most descend from the same few families. At the average town gathering, chances of meeting a Jessop, Barlow, or Black, run very, very high. In the pre-Donia Jessop era, in other words, the government wasn’t controlled just by the Church, but by family members exercising a kind of dynastic mob rule. (A side-effect of the family command: The town has the world’s highest rate of the rare genetic disorder Fumarase deficiency, also known as “Polygamist Downs,” and an entire cemetery dedicated to infant deaths, which the town used to call “Babyland”). Doran and Brian Jessop were vestiges of the old system, and after months of obstruction and playing hooky from council meetings, both moved on—one by choice, the other only after he refused to show up—paving the way for a fully democratic council.
But the real swell in secular numbers came when the municipal staff quit en masse. The officials wrote their resignation notices just after Mayor Jessop dropped the appeal of the DOJ case. Most cited family problems or other obligations. But the Utility Board Chairman—yet another Jessop, this one named Jacob—came clean about his motivation: “It has come to a point where I have to choose between my religion and participation in city government, and I choose my religion,” he wrote in a February 2018 letter to the city. “My religion teaches me that I should not follow a woman for a leader in a public or family capacity.” (“That was why everyone quit,” Mayor Jessop said. “He was just the only one that was honest.”)
In the months after, the mayor and council had to hire almost an entire staff, while working through the kinks of local governance on their own. They were, effectively, constructing a democracy from scratch. “Here sits a brand new city,” one council member told me. “One that’s totally vulnerable, that’s completely dependent, that we have to nurse and tender along. We have to build the systems around it that it’s never had.”
All of that to say: There was a lot at stake in Strategic Item A. Back at the council meeting, everyone read the mission, vision and value statements closely. The city manager pulled the language up on a projector, and began re-writing in real time. The audience bounced around ideas and edits for the better part of an hour. Should the vision statement use future tense? Does Hildale have a “country classic” feel? Each edit occasioned its own back-and-forth. The longest debate concerned variants on the phrase “decisions based on critical thinking” (in the end, they kept it as is). When all the changes were made, the council unanimously voted the text into effect.
“The words matter to us,” one official assured the crowd, “because we intend to channel every decision through them.” The statements allowed the council to write something that will, as they put it, “underpin everything that [they] do.” If applied properly, they could give the city something else to echo, something other than Warren Jeffs.
The morning after Hildale officials drafted their new mission statement, councilman Lawrence Barlow gave me a windshield tour of town, pointing out major landmarks. Like most of the new officials, Barlow, a burly, middle-aged guy who peppers his speech with Biblical phrases and casual curse words, was born to a plural wife in the Fundamentalist Church. He was exiled in 2012, but he has no problem discussing Jeffs now. On the tour, Barlow pulled up next to a beige fortress—a McMansion much grander than everything around it, shielded by a towering privacy wall. “This was Warren’s house,” he said.
The place is the picture of authoritarianism, a monument to Jeffs’ paranoid Orwellian excess. All told, the 29,000-square-foot compound has 44 bedrooms, a basketball court with no hoops (Jeffs removed them when he banned games), three isolated “punishment” areas, an electric closet for all his phone taps, and a secret back room attached to an escape tunnel. Along the length of the chimney, brick letters spell out Warren’s catchphrase: Pray and Obey.
“The crazy thing is you’ve got this,” Barlow said, gesturing to the compound, “and then across the street you’ve got that.” Near Jeffs’ home, there’s a weathered-looking, unfinished house, barely fit for any family, but especially in Hildale where offspring historically number in the double digits. “It just speaks to the disparity,” Barlow said.
The comparison captured a major crisis facing the city. Under Jeffs’ watch, Short Creek devolved into a kind of feudal stratification. Some divisions were cartoonishly literal: the faithful enclosed their homes in massive privacy fences, cutting off any communication with apostates, even their own family members, and leaving the town with a very Anchorite vibe. But Hildale also faced brutal income inequality, falling, like much of the nation, into a familiar economic trap: a few families amassed nearly all of the wealth, while others lived off scraps.
For the new government, bridging that divide is a top priority. In a sense, they have a head start (most of their 1 percent is now incarcerated). But inequality in Hildale is not like inequality anywhere else in the United States, where disparity usually stems from an unbalanced capitalist system. For decades, Short Creek operated as a quasi-communist state. The original settlers wanted to establish a radical kind of cooperative society that adhered to the New Testament value of holding “all things in common.” They pooled all their resources in a collective trust, and for decades—the vast majority of Short Creek’s existence—everything in the town was shared: from homes, to food, to health care.
After Jeffs and his father, the communal trust crumpled. When the federal government seized all the town’s assets in 2005, it was valued at a staggering $110 million, much of which had been leached from apostates and less powerful families. Not long later, the feds ordered the town to subdivide, and in the years since, Hildale has been gradually—and painfully, for many townspeople—divvying up the land, establishing private property for the first time in history.
The new council has been tasked with overseeing the town’s transition to an entirely new economic system. But they’re trying to do that while nursing the wounds Warren left behind—in a deeply divided constituency, where the act of drawing lines in the sand (sometimes literally: the council had to draft zoning laws) runs the risk of driving people even further apart.
Decades before he ran for office, Barlow began working for the Hildale fire department at age 14. In the 1970s, after 9-1-1 became the national emergency number, he introduced the idea to Hildale. For years, handling emergencies was his job: first as a paramedic, then in search and rescue. He also fielded tragedy at home: Two of his 10 children died before the age of six, and three of his sons have special needs and require constant care. In 2014, after he was exiled for a long list of alleged crimes (“everything from murder to adultery to sinning against the Holy Ghost... I’ve forgotten them all because they were bullshit...”), Barlow’s wife suffered a traumatic stroke, rendering her incapable of critical decision making, according to the state.
When he heard about the stroke through a friend, Barlow returned to Hildale against the wishes of the clergy. Jobless, he moved his family into a moldy trailer on the edge of town and cared for his wife and children, all of whom still belonged to Church. (“To them, I was coming home uninvited,” Barlow said).
For two years, the family crisis took up all his attention. But in February 2016, just before the Department of Justice would deliver its ruling, another emergency cropped up. The nation was gearing up for a presidential election, and for the first time, the state of Utah was holding a caucus instead of a primary. Hildale had never held a caucus; they barely had a voter registry. But when a nearby fire chief asked Barlow to organize one for his neighborhood, he agreed. When the date arrived in March, Barlow saw a mammoth improvement in voter participation from the last election. “We went from 5 percent to 55 percent,” he said, laughing.
The caucus indicated people were itching to make change. The following month, when the DOJ decision came down, Barlow and other apostates wanted to have some say in the court’s recommendations for the city. But the Church would not let them testify. So the apostates held a series of community meetings and drafted a petition outlining their requests, garnering hundreds of signatures and enough public notice that the judge got wind of it. Barlow called this crowd, without irony, the “Coalition of the Willing.” They called themselves the Short Creek Community Alliance.
If any shred of the town’s communal past remained, it lived on in the Alliance. But not everyone was excited. At one point, the Alliance decided to celebrate the 4th of July, one of the “pagan” traditions the Church had banned. They planned a sunrise ceremony near the Meetinghouse, a sprawling building on the Arizona side of town, where the religion was still headquartered. Three days before the holiday, church members began building walls around the Meetinghouse. By the 4th, it was a fortress. Workers were still putting the lights on the walls as the festivities kicked off. The message was clear, Barlow said: “They were saying: You guys came home uninvited, so you’re still out.”
But later that fall, a federal judge granted every one of the Alliance’s requests and they started thinking longer term. There was an election the next year with four seats open. Among them: mayor. “They had a grassroots coalition meeting, and I just went to it out of curiosity,” said Donia Jessop, who declared her candidacy several months later. “They asked everyone: Who is willing to put their hat in the ring?”
In some ways, Donia Jessop was an unlikely candidate to take on the Church: For decades she swore she’d never leave it. As a kid, she lived the Fundamentalist Short Creek life, and liked it. “My dad had two ladies,” she said. One mom worked out of town, the other cared for the family’s 26 children. Jessop wore the long, starchy dresses; she coiffed her hair in the signature bouffant. She had one moment of rebellion—eloping with her high-school boyfriend at age 17, rather than waiting for an arranged marriage. But for the most part, her faith ran so deep that when Jessop’s husband found out about Jeffs’ crimes, he didn’t confide in her. “I had told him, if you ever leave this church, you lose your family,” she said. “Because I will not follow you.”
But in 2012, a bishop operating on an imprisoned Jeffs’ behalf ordered yet another traumatic schism in the Church: dividing the town into seemingly arbitrary halves, forcing the “worthy” and the “wicked” to live in separate homes and worship in separate places. As Jessop prepared to break up her family, her 9-year-old daughter intervened. “She said to me—yelled actually—‘I want to live with my family,’” Jessop recalled. “It was like a board whacked me upside the head.” Almost immediately, they left Hildale.
But home had a pull. Eighteen months later, Jessop returned to Hildale for the first time. When she drove over the hill into town, she started to hyperventilate. “My blood ran cold. I started to sweat,” she said. “I couldn’t quite catch my breath.” (It was like that until the fifth time she came back). Once she got there, Hildale seemed worse off than Jessop felt. Houses were blocked off. Streets were empty. “The energy here was just very, very dark,” she said. She wasn’t moving back, yet, but teaching at a non-profit for traumatized children, many of whom had been ripped from their parents and suffered from severe attachment issues. “It feels like we’re abandoned,” they told her. “We’re all alone out here. We need community.”
In 2016, Jessop moved back to help build it. She had no political training. But she did have a very particular skill set that was well-suited for Hildale. She’d worked in 24-hour elderly care, then as a trauma counselor and teacher, and later, as crime victim advocate. She also had “a natural ability to bring people together,” and a thick skin (“I tell people I don't have one ounce of fat on my body,” she said. “It’s all thick skin.”)
When she decided to run for mayor, it wasn’t certain Jessop had a shot. Not everyone was on board for healing. When she canvassed door-to-door, passed out brochures, and put up lawn signs, Church members provided feedback (“Go to hell, bitch.”). There were also problems with voting. As the Community Alliance delved into the town voter registry, it appeared that multiple families were registered to vote at the same addresses. One council member said that his property had six or seven other names registered to it, all of whom, he claimed, were Fundamentalists who had since left town, but continued to vote from afar. The Community Alliance began challenging registrations en masse; one candidate told me her campaign alone reported 111 out-of-district voters. A tent city sprung up on the town’s outer limits, populated by “visiting” Fundamentalists. When the Alliance reported them, the camp dispersed overnight. Then, in November, Jessop took the election with 129 votes. The former mayor got 81.
Even after the election, divisions persisted. What followed a year of propane tanks: Seemingly inconsequential bureaucratic squabbles, backed by a century of emotional and spiritual baggage. When Jessop zoned the town, locals bristled. (“We've got some citizens saying that was government overreach,” she sighed, “because now, we’re not the wild, wild west.”) Then, there were flood mitigation ditches, sewer ponds, and culinary water conflicts. The council fired the police chief, hired a new one, and cracked down on a spree of animal killings (the Church had banned pets, leading to many cat and dog deaths, a trend that didn’t end after the election).“It felt like we were just putting out fires,” she said. “Every day something new would crop up.” (Sometime those fires were literal: since the DOJ decision, there have been more than two dozen human-started tire fires. The most recent, started just after Thanksgiving, took 24 hours to extinguish.)
Rancor, hostility, and partisanship were such common themes in the town’s daily life, it became a kind of joke. Take, for example, a Christmas concert, hosted in an event center on the Arizona side of town, a few days after the December city council meeting. The crowd that night was mostly the mayor’s family, either by blood or by marriage (“but not both!”), and everyone dressed for the occasion. There were ugly Christmas sweaters, matching elf costumes, and more than one silver sequin fedora. One guy went full Santa. (Anywhere else, the whole ordeal might have looked like another installation of the holiday-industrial-complex. But in Short Creek, Christmas is pretty new. So is most music, other than hymns. Both are banned by the Church.)
The last band to come on was a squadron of long-haired teenage boys, members of Christmas-themed metal group called Severed Society. When they took the stage, Jessop leaned over and said, “Those are my nephews—well, two of them aren’t.” The other two were the sons of Jacob Jessop, the former Utility Board Chairman, the man who quit when the mayor took office, saying he couldn’t serve a woman. His sons had been out of the Church for some time. At one point, the lead singer grabbed the mic. “This song,” he told the crowd, wryly, “is for everyone who didn’t come tonight.” Then they launched into their cover of “The Grinch.”
The propane tank debacle brought the town’s tensions to a head, but it also highlighted why, if anyone could unite the town, it was Jessop. Not long after the tank dust settled, the City Council started buzzing about a new, jargony idea: the “trauma-informed state.” It seemed like something out of a brochure, and in a sense it was. The term came out of a statewide push, brought on by the Utah lieutenant governor, to factor intergenerational trauma—things like poverty, abuse, food insecurity, and for some, a century of polygamist rule—into all government activity. But it also meant something simple: if the town’s problems were going to be solved, changes would need to come from someone with context, someone who knew Hildale history.
As it turned out, the whole propane tank ordeal stemmed from a technical legal detail. It struck the Steeds as overreach, because no past official had ever followed the letter of the law. (“When you’re running a department that has done things in the past that are strange,” board manager Johnson said, “applying the standard to people now feels strange.”) But Johnson was also new to town, on the job barely a month, without much context. He was still an outsider—not, to borrow a buzzword, “trauma-informed.” So he proceeded in a way that might have worked anywhere else, except Hildale.
“The deep-seated suspicion and fear of government and law enforcement is our ancestors after 180 years of experiences,” a local counselor told me. “Any regulation has to understand the barriers for people in polygamist communities, in order to provide effective supports and services.”
No one understands those barriers better than Jessop. She can approach Church members with understanding, because she used to number among their most loyal. She can call Jeffs “Uncle Warren,” the Fundamentalist epithet of respect, or cite his doctrine. “I meet people where they're at,” Jessop said. “When you tell someone they’re wrong, they’re going to dig their heels in so deep. I try to say: What can I do for you now? How can I help you?” Jessop’s empathy has gone far enough that even her sister, still faithful to the Church, offered the warmest of Fundamentalist praise: “I don’t support what she’s doing,” she told a friend, “but I support her as a human being.”
In Hildale, being “trauma-informed,” is a kind of oxymoronic move—disavowing the past, without degrading it. But there are hints of it everywhere. Instead of demolishing Jeffs’ old houses, for example, some residents have refurbished them. One guy, a former member of Warren’s private security force (called the “God Squad”) converted one of his smaller mansions into a hotel (he called it Zion’s Most Wanted, after Jeffs’ stint on the FBI’s list). And Briell Decker, Jeffs’ 65th wife, transformed the house where he had once kept her captive into a rehabilitation center for women escaping abuse. More examples pop up everyday.
The last morning I was in Hildale, for instance, something happened at the Meetinghouse, the Church’s main headquarters. It had been closed off since the Fundamentalists built walls back in 2016, blocking out the 4th of July party. But that morning, all the gates were open for business. Pedestrians trickled in, looking confused. As it turned out, a group in town had reclaimed it. They want to revamp the building. They’re thinking: Community center.