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Demolition starts on old FLDS polygamous school

Published September 4, 2014 3:45 pm

Alta Academy • Warren Jeffs, now serving a life sentence in Texas, was accused of assaulting children there.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sandy • The birthing room was still there. So was the baptismal font.

Some drawings of animals and flowers, in a motif synonymous with childhood, still adorned some doors in an upstairs room. A wooden decoration depicting the Bible's three wise men was on a storage building's exterior wall — until some neighbors took it down Wednesday as a souvenir.

The wise men got a reprieve, but everything else on the 4.5-acre property at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon will be demolished this week. That should be OK with many.

The buildings were home to the Alta Academy — the school operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Its principal was Warren Jeffs, the current FLDS president now serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in a Texas prison. Jeffs was convicted of sexual assault charges related to taking two underage girls as brides.

At Jeffs' 2011 trial in Texas, a nephew and a niece testified that Jeffs raped them at Alta Academy. But it was still a school and home for many others.

Jeffs father, Rulon Jeffs, bought the land in 1964. One of Rulon Jeffs' sons, Gary Hilton, said he and his family lived in an old stone miners' residence for years and raised fruits, vegetables and livestock. Construction began in 1968, Hilton said.

What became Alta Academy was originally a 36-bedroom home that Hilton, then about 16 years old, helped build. Rulon Jeffs and his then-eight wives and 40 to 50 children lived in the home, Hilton said.

"It's a sad thing to see it go down," said Hilton, who left the FLDS when he was 18. "There's bittersweet memories there."

Alta Academy opened in 1973. Warren Jeffs became principal in 1976. That year he turned 21 years old.

The academy's motto was, "Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.''

Rebecca Musser, who was raised at Alta Academy, said the school and compound represented the Jeffs' efforts to "mis-educate" the FLDS.

"I am grateful to see the property be taken down and something else built in its place," Musser said Wednesday. "I think it speaks to the healing that is possible."

When Musser was 19, she was married to then 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs at the compound. She later left the FLDS and testified against Warren Jeffs and other men convicted in Texas.

But Musser acknowledged she also has some fond memories of Alta Academy. Five of Musser's siblings were born there.

"For everything that we understood, it was a place of refuge for FLDS people," Musser said. "But what really went on was a mis-education that ultimately enslaved the FLDS people."

Many Alta Academy alumni came to view Jeffs as a pedophile who used the academy to further himself rather than the church.

The FLDS sold the property in 1999. Since then, it has changed hands multiple times and was largely left to deteriorate. Garbett Homes recently purchased the buildings and property and has been giving tours to reporters. Deterioration and vandalism have taken their toll. A SWAT team conducted training in the building that was the school. Rubber bullet casings were still scattered throughout that structure Wednesday.

After demolishing the existing buildings, the company plans to put up 15 single-family homes there.

The canyon-mouth location should be attractive to skiers or anyone wanting a close view of the Wasatch Mountains. Jacob Ballstaedt, who works in acquisitions for Garbett, said prices are expected to start in the range of $600,000.

Ballstaedt said he has heard from people who say they have fond memories of getting educated, meeting a spouse or having a child born there.

"There's more positive comments than negative," Ballstaedt said.

Alta Academy won't be completely gone. A house on the east side and one on the west were sold separately from Garbett's 4.5 acres.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle