Brielle Decker pulled a latch hidden underneath a shelf on the back wall. Suddenly, the shelves slid and opened a doorway to a secret room.
The room, in the basement of a house that once belonged to Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Warren Jeffs, is about 6 by12 feet. A fluorescent light fixture on the ceiling shined a yellowish glow on shelves and an old, open safe about the size of a dorm room refrigerator.
"We think this is where they kept the priesthood records," Decker said.
Now the house, and any secrets it can still reveal, belong to Decker, who says she used to be Jeffs' 65th plural wife.
In November, Decker obtained Jeffs' former home and two other residences sitting on the same parcel via the United Effort Plan. It is a land trust once controlled by the polygamous FLDS. In the past 2½ years, the "UEP," as everyone here calls it, has remade Hildale.
The UEP once owned the vast majority of homes and commercial properties in Hildale. Now, about 85 percent of those properties have been sold or are in the process of being sold to private owners, according to figures provided by Jeff Barlow, the UEP's executive director.
While the UEP doesn't ask about religion any more, none of those owners is believed to still be loyal FLDS members. The results are visible.
Walls and gates erected by the FLDS to shield outsiders' views have been torn down. There are more people in conventional clothing — FLDS women are known to wear prairie dresses and while men don long-sleeved monocolored shirts — and more people waving to one another as they drive down the red dirt streets.
"When you own the property, you see a whole new attitude," Barlow said. "You start seeing fences coming down and remodels going up."
It's not that FLDS members are excluded from the property ownership plan — one with origins as unique as any you'll find. The members refuse to participate because, they believe, the real estate has already been consecrated to God.
Their refusal has led some, both in and out of the church, to say that the UEP is driving FLDS members from the homes and community they built.
Joseph Allred, who is mayor of adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., where the UEP also owns most of the residences, said FLDS members like himself are being given an impossible choice.
"Either they enter into agreements with apostates to their faith," Allred said, "or they lose their home."
Most have chosen the latter. Eviction notices have been served on homes all over Hildale and Colorado City.
The UEP recently took control of what had been called the "Jeffs Block." It boasts a compound of mansions and smaller homes where Warren Jeffs, his late father and his brothers and their families all lived. (Jeffs is serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years in Texas for sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives.)
Barlow said the UEP has plans to work with a developer to turn the largest of the Jeffs homes, known as "The Big House," into apartments.
Last month, the UEP filed an eviction lawsuit to take control of the most visible religious symbol in the community — the FLDS meetinghouse in Colorado City. A complaint filed recently in a state court in Arizona asserts the meetinghouse was built as a communitywide resource, but the FLDS allow only their members inside.
Allred said there are cases in which five FLDS families have had to move in with one another because they have nowhere else to go.
Allred said he has extra people living with him because they were evicted. He worries he could be evicted soon, too.
"I have no other housing options at this point," Allred said.
Community chest • In 1942, the people living in Hildale and Colorado City, then referred to jointly as Short Creek, placed their assets in a trust.
Most were polygamists. They all wanted to practice a communal form of living.
Men were expected to work, build homes and contribute money to the UEP. They did so thinking they and their wives and children could live in the homes and operate their businesses or farms on the land.
The UEP carried on even as the faith in Short Creek split around it. A dispute over leadership succession in the 1980s led many of the UEP beneficiaries to create their own church and community in nearby Centennial Park, Ariz. The beneficiaries who stayed in Short Creek reconstituted under the FLDS moniker.
Legally, the UEP was distinct from the FLDS. In reality, the church operated the UEP.
"When I bought those shingles or Sheetrock or two-by-fours and put them into that home, I understood that was a consecration to the church," Allred said Thursday in a telephone interview.
By 2005, there was concern in the office of then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff that Jeffs was using the UEP to finance criminal activities such as underage marriages or money laundering and that he was mismanaging the trust, placing people who had no part in the abuses at risk of losing their homes.
That year, Shurtleff petitioned a Utah judge to seize the UEP. The judge agreed and appointed a fiduciary and, later, a board of trustees to manage it.
The terms of the reformed UEP specify that it is religiously neutral. Anyone who placed assets into the trust is considered a beneficiary of it, regardless of religion.
It was decided that rather than continue to hold the homes and lands, most would be sold. A few would be given away to the person who built the home if he or she was alive and agreed to pay a few thousand dollars in surveying and closing costs.
FLDS members refused to participate in the process. They saw the seizure as a form of government persecution.
Plus, the UEP hired former FLDS members as employees tasked with managing the properties and record keeping. Years later, a judge appointed more former FLDS members to a board of trustees.
For generations, FLDS members have been taught that people who leave the church and work against it are apostates who — to quote a discourse Mormon leader Brigham Young once gave on apostasy — should be left "alone severely."
Meanwhile, the municipal governments in Hildale and Colorado City, where the elected and appointed officials have historically been FLDS members, refused to accept a UEP plan to subdivide properties. The Utah Supreme Court, in 2014, ruled in the UEP's favor for the Hildale plan, but the litigation continues in Colorado City, where some entire city blocks are listed as one parcel at the county recorder's office.
So while the UEP has been slowly giving people deeds to homes on the Hildale side, it has largely been unable to do the same in Colorado City.
However, the UEP is giving people in Colorado City what it calls occupancy agreements. An occupancy agreement is sort of a cross between a rental agreement and the terms of a homeowners association. Occupants agree to pay $100 a month to live in the home and are responsible for upkeep and paying property taxes.
Evictions, negotiations • Many FLDS members signed occupancy agreements in 2008 after receiving permission to do so from church leaders. Barlow said the UEP has continued to honor the deals for the signers who have remained in their homes and have stayed up to date on the taxes.
But many FLDS members have moved out of the homes they signed to occupy, he said, and moved into other places without permission.
Meanwhile, many homes have been delinquent on property taxes. In Utah and Arizona, authorities can foreclose on any house five years behind on taxes.
Barlow said the UEP started evicting people from homes four years behind on taxes to ensure no homes were lost. Those evictions have been completed, and the UEP has moved onto homes 3½ years delinquent.
In both states, the eviction process takes months and requires multiple notices be served on the occupants. Those notices also inform the occupants that the evictions can be halted if they work out an arrangement with the UEP. Barlow said there have been a few cases in which FLDS members have signed an occupancy agreement and paid the taxes to stop the eviction. The trustees are even willing to defer a $100-a-month fee if that is the only sticking point to keeping people in the homes, Barlow said.
"There's absolutely no reason an eviction needs to go through," Barlow said.
The UEP would even consider negotiating through an intermediary, such as an attorney, if an FLDS member didn't want to deal with the trust directly, he said.
That's a solution David Bistline would like to see. Or, he would be OK with if the UEP stops the evictions and lets FLDS members stay where they are.
Bistline used to be an FLDS member. His wife and 10 of his 11 children are still in the group and living in a mobile-home park in Colorado City, he said. He doesn't want them evicted.
Bistline, who lives in a home in Colorado City under an occupancy agreement he signed, uses the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe what he sees.
He believes the UEP has created policies to drive the FLDS out of Hildale so people not in the church can vote themselves into government offices in municipal elections scheduled for later this year.
"There's people here that are caught between a rock and a hard spot," Bistline said. "They have [church] leaders that are telling them one thing, and the UEP saying, 'You have to do what we want or we'll evict you.' "
While FLDS members try to take in parishioners who have been evicted, there is no formal support system for FLDS members who are evicted, Allred said.
The consolidation of households cause problems unique to the FLDS. The church has strict rules about dating and courtship, and Allred said multiple families under the same roof have led to what he called "inappropriate conduct" among youths.
Some FLDS members are leaving Short Creek. On March 21, Beaver's planning board approved an application from a Hildale-based company called Mountain Home Resources to build two modular homes in that town. The board also approved a proposal from Mountain Home Resources to subdivide six lots in Beaver.
On Thursday, FLDS men loaded a modular home onto a flatbed trailer, and drove it out of Hildale. Insulation fell out of the home as it rolled down Utah Avenue toward the highway. The lot where the home resided for years had been served with an eviction notice.
Allred acknowledged all FLDS members have the right to choose whether to participate in the UEP.
"It's not a question of whether it would hurt their standing in the church," Allred said. "It's a question of whether it would violate their personal beliefs."
Moving back • For beneficiaries willing to follow the process, there are rewards.
With occupancy agreements or deeds in hand, a few businesses have started. A chicken restaurant opened over the summer. A motel is under construction along Utah's State Route 59. There is hope Short Creek can become a stopover for tourists traveling between Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, or maybe a destination itself.
Shawn Stubbs' father was born into what became the FLDS. He later converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially quit practicing polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members found practicing it, and raised Stubbs and his siblings in that church.
Stubbs grew up in Kanab. As a child, he was in Short Creek about once a month playing with relatives in the washes and slot canyons around the towns. When he was old enough, he participated in FLDS service projects, including work on homes that belonged to the UEP.
Stubbs, 31, qualified as a beneficiary. He and his wife, Alex, recently agreed to buy a four-bedroom ranch-style home in Hildale with a huge yard and garden for their three daughters. The county assessor says the home's market value is $97,800, and that's about what they will pay, counting the purchase price, closing costs and bringing the taxes up to date, Stubbs said.
"This is an awesome community," Stubbs said as he stood in his new driveway and gazed around the neighborhood. "Chances are I'm related to the people in that house, that house, that house and that house."
Even if he is related, not all of Stubbs' neighbors are neighborly. The FLDS members have little interaction with those who don't belong to their church.
Lorin Cooke grew up in Short Creek, but has been living in Elko, Nev., working in mining construction. He wants to move back. The UEP recently agreed to sell him a large home on Hildale Street with room for the wife and seven children living with him now, plus room for his adult children to come stay with him. He also hopes his second wife will leave the FLDS one day and return to him.
But first, the UEP needs to evict the people living in the house it is supposed to sell him.
"I don't even know who's living there," Cooke said. "Chances are I'm related to them."
The property awarded to Decker has a market value of about $1.2 million. She said the UEP counted her labors and contributions to the trust toward the purchase price.
Decker is pursuing financing for some of the improvements she wants to make on Warren Jeffs' former house. It has two industrial kitchens, and she wants to use the bigger of the two and its adjoining dinning room to launch a restaurant. She wants to convert some of the bedrooms, maybe even the one where Jeffs slept, into lodging, rentals or emergency housing for people exiting the FLDS.
Not that they have to flee the FLDS to get in.
"We need this to be a place for tourists, for ex-FLDS and it would be a place for FLDS," Decker said, "but they have said they won't come here because of me."
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