Once a child bride, Elissa Wall now has ambitions to remake a polygamous community

(Steve Griffin | Tribune File Photo) With tears in here eyes, Elissa Wall, who is the victim the Warren Jeffs case, talks with reporters at the Matheson courthouse in Salt Lake City, about the Utah Supreme Court ordering a new trial for Jeffs Tuesday Jul 27, 2010.

The day a judge awarded her $16 million in damages, Elissa Wall was busy. 

She had orders to fill and employees to supervise at her business, My Baby Rocks, an online retail store for punk and alternative baby and toddler clothing. The offices are in Colorado City, Ariz., home to the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint. 

Just on the other side of the state line, in Hildale, Utah, Wall lives with her two children in a home she received as part of a settlement with another party in her lawsuit. By the time she did all the things mothers do when they return home from work, it was time for bed. 

She says it could be worse. Wall, 31, could be doing what a lot of people in Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, do, and drive an hour or more for work. 

“You don’t want to live in a community where you have to travel 50 miles in order to have a job,” Wall said the next morning. 

Elissa Wall, then 14, and Allen Steed, then 19, the day after they were married by polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs. This photo was used as evidence in Jeffs' rape as an accomplice trial. Elissa Wall

This image provided by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department shows a booking photograph of Warren Jeffs after his arrest late Monday. Jeffs, who was on the FBI's Most Wanted List was found with cell phones, laptop computers, wigs and more than $50,000 in cash when he was arrested in Nevada, authorities said Tuesday Aug. 29, 2006.(AP Photo/Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)

That’s not to say life in Short Creek is easy for Wall. In 2007, she testified against FLDS President Warren Jeffs and told a St. George jury how he forced her into a marriage at age 14. The groom was her 19-year-old cousin.

Although the Utah Supreme Court eventually overturned Jeffs’ conviction for rape as an accomplice, people still loyal to Jeffs believe she lied in court. She says some of the people who have left the church harbor suspicions or resentments, too.

They exit the FLDS knowing only what the leadership has said about her, she said, and usually don’t know her true story until taking the time to speak with her. 

Wall has now been awarded a total of $18.75 million for damages related to the marriage and the sexual abuse and multiple miscarriages she said she suffered in the four years before she left her husband. Not everyone is pleased with the monetary award ordered by 3rd District Judge Keith Kelly, either. 

Rachel Jeffs, one of Warren Jeffs’ daughters who left the FLDS years ago, said on Twitter after Tuesday’s ruling that the award would have no impact on her father —  who is serving life plus 20 years in Texas for crimes related to sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives — but would hurt FLDS members who are already victims.

Rachel Jeffs later deleted the tweet and a similar Facebook post, she explained in a later interview, because she didn’t want to be mean toward Wall. The two women grew up together. 

But in that interview, Rachel Jeffs still expressed concern about the award. There are few men left in the FLDS, she said, and any FLDS properties Wall might pursue in an effort to collect the judgment are probably housing women and children with no way to support themselves. Taking those homes might even encourage FLDS members to remain in the sect.

“It’s these kind of things that makes the people’s testimonies stronger,” Rachel Jeffs said, “because, ‘Oh, yes, we’re the persecuted ones.’ ”

Wall says her real goal in suing Jeffs and the church has been preventing future child-bride marriages and helping people in Short Creek. 

“Given the fact that Warren doesn’t have a lot of money and he is sitting in prison, I really don’t think we’ll see a lot of that money, if any,” Wall said the day after the latest award in her favor. “It was more about holding him accountable.”

But her lawyers plan to pursue any assets held by Jeffs or the church, which also has been held liable since Jeffs was acting as the FLDS leader when he arranged the marriage. That could mean taking the FLDS’ best-known remaining asset — its ranch near Pringle, S.D. — though Wall attorney Alan Mortensen also has discussed pursuing FLDS holdings as far away as Mexico and Canada. 

“By nature, I am not necessarily a fighter,” Wall added. “I am a lover, and I am about trying to help people.”

Wall was raised in Sugar House until age 13. Then Wall’s mother — who had been her father’s second wife — was reassigned to a man in Hildale. Wall moved there with her mother. Wall was married to Alan Steed the next year, 2001, and lived in Short Creek throughout her marriage.

After leaving Steed, Wall married a man legally — and of her own volition. They lived along the Wasatch Front and had two children, now ages 12 and 10, but have since divorced.

Alan Mortensen, attorney for Elissa Wall, speaks with reporters following a hearing Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, in Salt Lake City. The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by Wall who says polygamous leader Warren Jeffs forced her to marry her cousin when she was 14. Wall is seeking as much as $40 million in damages from the communal property trust of the church group led by Jeffs. The fund is now controlled by the state. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In 2016, Wall received a $2.75 million settlement from the United Effort Plan — the trust that owns much of the land in Short Creek and which Jeffs was in charge of when he arranged Wall’s underage marriage. The settlement paid her in cash and property.

Wall received a plot of unimproved land east of Colorado City along the Vermilion Cliffs. She isn’t saying what her plans are for the property, except that she wants to develop it into something that will benefit Short Creek economically. She mentioned jobs and affordable housing as two components of that. 

Wall also opted to take what she calls a ”dilapidated” house in Hildale, fix it up and move in.

She did that, she said, because she didn’t want Short Creek to be defined by Jeffs, the sex abuses he committed and the families he ordered split apart. She believed Short Creek needed former residents to move back and remake the town, even if it meant encountering some resistance and bad memories. 

“There was a part of me that wanted to face those demons,” Wall said, ”and remind me that I was bigger than this place.”

A law enforcement officer, right, escorts Rebecca Musser, left, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a witness for the prosecution as she arrives at Tom Green County Courthouse for the sentencing phase of the Warren Jeffs sexual assault trial Friday Aug. 5, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Charlene Jeffs, the former sister-in-law of Warren Jeffs, church leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sect, arrives to testify at the Sandra Day O'Connor United States District Court in the federal civil rights trial against two polygamous towns on the Arizona-Utah line Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, in Phoenix. Charlene Jeffs is the estranged wife of Lyle Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' brother. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

She’s had the benefit of a support system. In recent years, perhaps hundreds of former Short Creek residents — most of them former Jeffs followers — have moved back, while Jeffs loyalists have moved away. Wall can also look to some of her family for help. 

One of her full sisters is Rebecca Musser, who testified against Jeffs and other FLDS men at criminal trials in Texas and wrote the book, ”The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice.” A half-sister, Charlene Wall, was the first wife of Lyle Jeffs, who until his indictment last year for food stamp fraud was running the FLDS on a day-to-day basis in place of his imprisoned brother.

Charlene filed for divorce in 2015, spoke to law enforcement and helped build the case against her now ex-husband. Lyle Jeffs goes to trial in October on charges related to allegations he organized a scheme to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and then absconded during pretrial release. He has pleaded not guilty. 

“By having each other,” Wall said of her sisters, “I think it’s given us quite a bit of confidence.”

Wall also has waded into local politics. While her name will not be on the ballot for Hildale’s municipal election in November, she has been among a group who found candidates who do not maintain loyalty to Jeffs. The group also organized candidate meetings and registered people to vote. 

Previous municipal elections in Short Creek have been a ”sham,” she said, with FLDS bishops deciding who would run and whom followers would vote for. Many former members don’t know what a city council actually does, she said. 

Providing that civics lesson to people and seeing them realize they have a choice has been rewarding, Wall said, and compensates for some of the other complications of life in Short Creek. 

“It’s kind of a reminder,” she said, ”of what the American dream really is.”