Dividing lines between FLDS, non-members may be fading in Hildale

Posted at 4:23 PM, Sep 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-15 19:33:31-04

HILDALE, Utah -- For years, these polygamous towns have been divided by more than a border.

Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., have been divided along lines of those in the Fundamentalist LDS Church and those outside. Entire families have even been split apart.

But in the year since devastating flash floods killed 21 in this area (14 in the Short Creek area and another seven in Zion National Park), some believe those lines are starting to disappear.

"When people look back 50 to 100 years and say, 'When did Colorado City and Hildale change?' They'll always look back to the flood. It has brought so much positive change out of a horrible event," said Terrill Musser, a community organizer and resident of Short Creek (the common name for the two towns). "The citizens are coming together saying, 'What can we do as a community to fix our town?'"

A group of girls in Hildale sit in a park before a memorial service for flooding victims on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. (Pete Deluca III, FOX 13 News)

A group of girls in Hildale sit in a park before a memorial service for flooding victims on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. (Pete Deluca III, FOX 13 News)

Musser said he attributes some of the change to the compassionate response from people in the "outside world" in the days following the flood. Hundreds of searchers spent nearly a month looking for all the victims. (Only one person, 6-year-old Tyson Black, has not been recovered.) In the aftermath of the disaster, families divided when some were cast out or left the FLDS Church have begun to reconcile, ex-members said.

There are still divisions in this stronghold of the FLDS Church. Members of the polygamous sect feel under siege from law enforcement and the media. Warren Jeffs still leads the church from his prison cell, where he's serving a life sentence for child sex assault related to underage marriages. His brother, Lyle Jeffs, is a fugitive wanted by the FBI.

Some believe this year's raid by federal agents resulting in 11 people being charged with food stamp fraud and money laundering has shaken things up for the better.

"Actually, that's been a catalyst for change. The leaders needed to be held accountable for what they had done so the people could stand up," said Shirlee Draper, another community organizer who helped plan a memorial service for the flood victims.

Some residents in the towns told FOX 13 they believe Lyle Jeffs has been in and out of Hildale in recent months. FBI spokeswoman Sandra Barker said they continue to receive a number of tips on his possible whereabouts after offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

FBI wanted poster for Lyle Jeffs.

FBI wanted poster for Lyle Jeffs.

Merril Barlow, who grew up in the FLDS Church, said Jeffs and other leaders needed to be held accountable for the communities to get better.

"Any people or peoples who think they're above the law, they need to stop that and not think we're above the law," he said.

In Short Creek, many ex-FLDS members who were ousted have returned to raise their families in the small towns surrounded by spectacular red rock cliffs. There are signs of economic development renewing itself.

Draper said some of them have banded together and begun speaking out against problems they see in town government (all members of the city councils belong to the FLDS Church). She told FOX 13 the number of people outside the FLDS Church in Hildale are beginning to outnumber those inside.

"I would bet we're over halfway more non-FLDS in Hildale than FLDS," she said. "This next election could prove really, really interesting."