Just off a two-lane Utah highway, past a series of weed-sprung lots, past where the paved road turns to dirt, you’ll find the modest offices of the United Effort Plan Trust (UEP). It’s an obscure organization, but one which holds nearly all the land within this 13-square-mile territory, known as Short Creek. Inside the building, which smells faintly of fresh paint, you’ll find the friendly Jeff Barlow, sitting behind his desk in a blue t-shirt, making his pitch for why, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, Short Creek is taking off.
“We’re an hour-and-a-half away from Lake Powell, an hour away from the Grand Canyon. Thirty minutes away from Zion National Park,” Barlow tells me, trying to explain what’s drawn so many families to move to the area within the last few years. Behind him are framed pictures of his wife and children and a diploma from Brigham Young University Law School. “It was really fun to grow up in a small town where everybody knew each other,” he says, describing his own childhood in the region. “There was tons of family support and tons of friends.”
The place Barlow is describing is perhaps best known as an outpost of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway Mormon sect. The Short Creek area spills over the Utah-Arizona border and encompasses two formally incorporated towns: Hildale on the Utah side and Colorado City on the Arizona side. The territory was settled by FLDS members as a polygamous community after mainstream Mormons (the LDS Church) banned polygamy in 1890.
In more recent years, the FLDS community has made headlines for its increasingly insular relationship to the outside world and the iron-handed rule of its now imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs. Under Jeffs, Short Creek became like a fortress, with metal fences and concrete walls securing whole blocks. Jeffs ordered the installation of surveillance cameras and kicked out local businesses, including gas stations, public schools, and a small local zoo. Before his arrest, and in an attempt to maintain so-called purity, Jeffs exiled hundreds of members—mostly males—from the Short Creek community. “A notice from the church that you are no longer a member in good standing was akin to getting an eviction notice,” Barlow says. “I know hundreds of families who got kicked out of the church and immediately had to vacate their home.”
Warren Jeffs also orchestrated a horrific system of sexual abuse in the community. The pattern of his crimes against underage children eventually landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Subsequent lawsuits filed against Jeffs and memoirs published by his family members fill in the terrifying details. There are allegations that he not only arranged marriages between underage girls and older men, but that he also assaulted and abused several young women—and young men—in his family and church for years. His sexual assault of two underage girls, whom he’d “married” along with more than 60 adult wives, sent him to prison for life in 2011.
But with Jeffs’ downfall, the community is trying to forge a new beginning. Dissident members of the church are moving back, and new residents are able to buy homes in the once closed-off community. That’s where Jeff Barlow comes in. An attorney, he is now tasked with managing the UEP Trust—once the financial arm of the FLDS church—under the direction of a local board of trustees.* Barlow intends to use the opportunity to bring back the families that Warren Jeffs exiled from Short Creek and restore the sort of community life many of the Short Creek residents experienced growing up, before “that crazy prophet”—to quote one resident—broke up their idyllic town.
As we talk in his office, Barlow directs my attention to a large brick house down the street from the UEP offices. “There’s no landscaping. The house looks empty,” Barlow says. “But you used to not be able to even see that house behind a big, ugly fence. Now, the fence is gone. There’s a sign that there’s life there. A sign that the occupants want people to be able to walk up to the front door and ring the doorbell. That’s progress.”
BESIDES THEIR CONTINUED adherence to polygamy, the defining feature of the FLDS church has been their practice of communal living and shared wealth. In 1942, the FLDS prophet and council established a trust, named the United Effort Plan, as a means to safeguard the material wealth of church members down to their property assets. The community’s wealth, in turn, was redistributed to the members to fulfill their “just wants and needs,” according to the trust’s founding documents. Projections logged during Jeffs’ years there place the trust’s value at more than $110 million.
As a polygamous community, people were abundant and close-knit. It was common for children to greatly outnumber adults. “There was a long period in this town’s history where it was a little utopia, the epitome of a self-sustaining community,” says Brian Steele, the executive director of the Dream Center, a Phoenix-based social welfare organization with a location now in Short Creek. The words “ZION” appear in gold, serif lettering near the doorways of homes throughout town—a colloquial reference to heaven on earth.
Jeff Barlow grew up in Short Creek in a polygamous, FLDS family: one dad, two moms, 17 siblings. The Barlows can trace their family name back to one of a dozen or so other families that orignally established the community. It wasn’t until he got older that Barlow says he realized what it would mean to become an adult in the town. The community’s authority was centralized in the FLDS prophet: marriages, money, property, houses, government, and law enforcement. “I sat in high school and I knew I was marching toward the day I was going to graduate,” he says. “The church was going to appoint me a lot. I had to build a house on property I didn’t own.” He also knew he would have little say about his future wife. “As soon as the church was ready, they’d tell you to show up at 10:00 on Saturday morning and there’s a girl there and you’re assigned and boom, you’re married. I said, ‘No way. I can’t do that. I’m out of here.’” Barlow says he was immediately shunned after leaving. “I went from having a community and friends and family and a support system to having absolutely nothing in this entire world.”
Not long after Barlow’s departure, Warren Jeffs became the prophet of the FLDS church and took complete control of the civic and spiritual infrastructure of Short Creek, starting in 2002. The FBI would later explain the sexual assault charges, which initially put Jeffs under their surveillance, surfaced the same year. The FBI’s subsequent investigation into Jeffs, culminating in his 2006 arrest, marked the first strike against his grip on Short Creek.
The second strike came from dissidents that Jeffs himself had forced out of the community. A CNN report estimated hundreds of men were excommunicated by Jeffs between 2002 and 2007. These exiles became known as the “Lost Boys,” and together with other FLDS exiles, they resented not only the loss of their only connection to their families, but also to their homes, property, and jobs. It wasn’t more than two years after Jeffs’ erratic excommunications began that various clusters of exiles organized legal action against the church and the UEP Trust, which they claimed was originally instituted to support the needs of community members like them.
In early 2005, the judge in one case replaced Jeffs as head of the trust, installing in his place a special fiduciary—a court appointee, not a member of the FLDS church or a resident in the town—who would work with the court, on behalf of the trust, to reach and administer a settlement. The judge’s decision to reorganize the trust separated Jeffs from the fortune he controlled. One lawsuit settlement gave 21 acres of property in Short Creek to a group of seven exiles, in addition to paying $250,000 to a “Lost Boys” education and emergency fund.
The sum impact of the lawsuits, which extended over several years, won exiles the right to move back to Short Creek and reclaim homes and property in town. The exiles’ case also helped reveal the inner workings of the FLDS church, just as federal prosecutors were closing in on the evidence they needed to arrest and convict Warren Jeffs. Jeffs went on the run in 2004, but he was eventually captured during a routine traffic stop near Las Vegas in 2006. His initial trial verdict was overturned on technicalities, but a new trial in Texas on additional charges led to his 2011 conviction.
In 2015, Barlow moved back to Short Creek to serve as legal counsel to the court-appointed special fiduciary to the UEP Trust. During his time away from the area, he had gone to college and law school and started a family. He had also joined the LDS Church. Since returning, he has been promoted to executive director of the UEP, now effectively leading the board which determines how trust assets are distributed. One of the first priorities of the UEP under Barlow is to offer property in the region back to the residents who poured their time and resources into the community in the first place. He has overseen the project of subdividing the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City, to make it possible for people to get the deeds to homes they had built when they were a part of the church. Barlow says that every family that petitions the trust board and gets in a home “immediately turns around and brings in five more.”* He says, “Demand is growing way faster than supply.”
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM with ex-church members moving back to Short Creek is the fact that many have never fully established a new life outside the FLDS church. “These people need education, basic skills, jobs, transportation, everything they used to get from the trust,” says Jeff Matura, the attorney for Colorado City. Barlow estimates half of the Short Creek population of approximately 8,000 is desperately poor. “They don’t have the food they need, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have coats,” he says. With the church’s central authority in prison, and the FLDS church itself separated from its former financial base, the UEP is trying to bring organizations in from out of town to help provide the services and infrastructure that the church used to cover: necessities like food, shelter, clothing, transportation, healthcare, counseling, and education.
The large houses where Warren Jeffs and his wives lived in Short Creek are being remodeled to make room for the town’s new priorities. One is a bed and breakfast, aiming to capitalize on tourist traffic to nearby Zion and Grand Canyon national parks. The other house—a mammoth 44-bedroom, three-story, brick mansion—is going to be a site extension for an evangelical social welfare organization based in Phoenix, called the Dream Center, which is preparing to offer temporary housing and services for people who’ve left the FLDS church. While touring the Dream Center, I met a framer named Bud who is helping with the conversion of Jeffs’ house. I gently pressed him about his return to Short Creek. “As far as I see it, religion was always the worst thing about this place,” he said. Moving back was his way of letting the church know he wasn’t afraid of it anymore.
The Dream Center’s on-site directors, Glyn and Jenna Jones, are affiliated with Dream City, a network of non-denominational churches in Phoenix with roots in the Assemblies of God tradition. They have years of experience working for Franklin Graham’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse, which offers natural disaster relief services. The Joneses describe their role in Short Creek as helping to restore order and dignity to the community that Jeffs ripped apart. “This isn’t a situation where we can start handing out tracts and making converts,” says Glyn Jones. “It’s about being available to their needs and showing them love.” At one FLDS home, the Joneses saw a small sign of ambivalence toward Jeffs. In the living room, there was a wall with framed photos of the FLDS church’s eight prophets going back to Joseph Smith. Over the top of the frames, a gold inscription reads, “Loyalty is life.” There was an empty frame where Jeffs’ picture should have been.
There are still deep divides in the community between returning exiles and current members of the FLDS church. From prison, Jeffs has instructed FLDS members not to deal with the UEP or pay property taxes, which means the UEP can evict them. Since 2012, more than a thousand FLDS members have been evicted and scattered to other towns. In his office, Jeff Barlow pulls up a parcel map on his computer, and identifies the roughly 120 households on the Arizona side of town that are four-years delinquent in paying their property taxes and will be facing eviction within a year.
The forced migration has meant that Short Creek now skews more non-FLDS, and the new majority population is applying its numerical strength to shape local politics. In the fall of 2017, the town of Hildale, Utah, hosted a contested election, ushering in a set of firsts: an ex-FLDS, female mayor and three new, non-church city council members. The new mayor, Donia Jessop, seems to embody the distinctive past and enterprising future of Short Creek. She left the church five years ago, but remains in a polygamous relationship. She has ten children, runs a local food counter business with her family, and doesn’t identify with a specific religion anymore, but still considers herself a spiritual person who talks to God all the time.
A total of 15 city employees and board members resigned in the wake of the Hildale election—all FLDS church members. “Someone has resigned about every two weeks since last November,” Jessop says. In January, a few months after she was sworn in, Jessop says she received a resignation letter from a member of the Hildale utility board explaining his religious beliefs prohibited him from “following a woman for a leader in a public capacity,” and from serving alongside “apostates.” Jessop seems up for taking any backlash in stride. “Some of the ex-FLDS men who believe women shouldn’t be in leadership positions, I kind of chuckle because it’s just so fun to do things different than they’ve always had it,” she told me. “I love the newness of the whole thing.”
Barlow predicted the most amazing thing about the town is still a decade in the future. In ten years, he thinks everyone left in Short Creek will be people who have decided to stay in the community of their own choice. They will be people who are at peace having neighbors who don’t share the same beliefs as they do. He is not expecting heaven on earth this time around, but if they stick to the task at hand—of rebuilding Short Creek—there’s a good chance they’ll end up in the promised land they sought all along.
Barak Wright is a writer and multimedia producer based in Southern California. His latest work has appeared on public radio in Los Angeles (KCRW’s UnFictional) and Philadelphia (WHYY’s The Pulse).
*Corrections: A sentence has been updated to clarify that the UEP Trust is overseen by a local board of trustees. A second sentence was updated to clarify that not every family that petitions the board is able to get into a home.