“The most lawless place in America”

Short Creek, the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints on the border between Utah and Arizona. Photo: Susan Schulman

Short Creek, the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints on the border between Utah and Arizona. Photo: Susan Schulman

Sitting in the shadow of Mars-red mountains, Short Creek, the name given to the twin communities of Hildale, Utah (population 2,726) and Colorado City, Arizona (population 4,821), doesn’t look threatening. In fact, it looks just like any other rural American town. It is, however, anything but.

This is the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamous break-off from the mainstream LDS (Mormon) church that dominates the state of Utah. This sect, of which up to 90 percent of the community are members, is led from afar by ‘Prophet’ Warren Jeffs, a convicted child abuser currently serving life plus 20 years in a Texas jail.

Yet imprisonment hasn’t diminished Warren Jeffs’s influence over this pocket of America. Like a mafia boss he rules from his cell aided by his brother, proxy prophet Lyle Jeffs. Lyle lives behind tall walls here in Hildale and delivers Warren Jeffs’s prison ‘dictations’ to the faithful, mandating all aspects of life, from clothing and labour to food and sexual relations.

For issue #16 of Delayed Gratification, Susan Schulman travelled to Short Creek to document the stories of individuals who fell out with the church – and had hell to pay for it. Here are some of the photos she took, and excerpts from the stories behind them. To read the full story, buy the issue in our shop.

The lost boy

At 13, Cedric was sent away from home to repent for an unknown sin. He was terrified. “I was so scared. I thought I would go to hell,” he remembers. He’d never been away from his small FLDS community before. “I really missed my mom,” he adds in a small voice.

He was placed with eight other boys, all aged between 13 and 17, in a rented house presided over by a ‘boss’ and put to work in construction in an unpaid child-labour work crew. As a young teenager, Cedric was pipe-setting and operating heavy loaders for a Hildale construction company with links to the FLDS. There he worked, as he puts it, “as hard as any 30-year-old”.

Boys like Cedric are known as ‘Lost Boys’. Ostensibly sent away to ‘repent’, they are separated from families who are forbidden from having any contact with them, and used as unpaid workers to line the coffers of FLDS construction businesses. The boys believe they can successfully atone and be allowed to return home, but this rarely happens. If they returned they would provide competition for the older men in the FLDS, who want to marry the sect’s young women. Instead they are permanently cut off from their families who, according to church decree, will never speak to their sons again. It is brutal.


Lorin Holm in the living room of his Colorado City home

The apostate

On 9th January 2011, Lyle Jeffs summoned Lorin Holm to the church’s large meeting house in Colorado City in the middle of the family’s Sunday lunch. Surrounded by 13 of the church elite, Jeffs told Lorin that the Lord had a revelation for him. Lorin, then 54, was sent away, exiled, “to repent from afar” for an unknown sin.

Lyle instructed Lorin to send money for the church to a PO box address in Las Vegas. As is the case when people are sent away, all contact with family was to be strictly forbidden. Warren Jeffs would now be father to Lorin’s 25 children and the church would take care of his family’s needs. And with that, Lorin packed his bags and left.

Lorin had been born into the FLDS in Hildale. “No one was more of a believer than I was,” he explains. “I was crushed. I wanted my family back.”

The week before he was sent away, he had given $10,000 to the church. Now, working extra hard towards achieving the ‘repentance’ that would allow him to return and be reunited with his family, Lorin began sending $3,000 a week earned from his successful water-filtration business to the designated Nevada post box. He did this for three months.

Everyone in the FLDS community lives in fear of being banished. It is estimated that as many as 1,000 of them have been ‘sent away to repent’ in recent years, leaving their parentless children ‘assigned’ to Jeffs and the church.

Like Lorin, they go in the belief they will be allowed back when they have repented enough. All of them dutifully send funds back to the church as they diligently work towards their unattainable homecoming. Many can be found in the fracking fields of the Dakotas. Typically, they will never see their children or wives or mothers again. But they don’t know that and they don’t give up trying.

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