HILDALE – In a community once tightly closed to the outside world and ever shrouded in controversy, one man says big changes are on the horizon – beginning with the drastic repurposing of a mansion that was originally built for Warren Jeffs.
A cursory glance from Highway 389 may not reveal that much has changed in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, since Jeffs, former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was imprisoned. But behind the high walls surrounding Jeffs’ former compound, Willie Jessop says nothing is the same.
“I will never tear down the walls, as a reminder of what can happen, similar to the Berlin Wall,” Jessop said. “If we tear down the wall, we have a tendency of repeating the acts that created the problems to begin with.”
Jessop, who formerly served as Warren Jeffs’ bodyguard and “his father’s before him,” said he is now actively involved in many changes that are taking place as a new day slowly dawns in the twin border communities known as “Short Creek.”
“We didn’t create this mess overnight; we’re not going to fix it overnight,” Jessop said. “But we’ve sure got a great facility to get started.”
America’s Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast
In the form of a new Hildale business, Jessop said he has taken a step forward on a personal mission to see estranged families reunited; literal and metaphoric walls torn down between Short Creek residents and the outside world; and community members in need – who have lost homes, jobs and more in the past months and years – get on their feet again.
This week, America’s Most Wanted Suites and Bed & Breakfast, a new hotel owned by Jessop on the northeast side of Hildale, will open to the public. The inn is framed by majestic red cliffs and filled with luxury rooms – but it’s not the lavish accommodations or scenic views that particularly make this facility unique; the bed and breakfast is housed within Warren Jeffs’ former mansion.
“Trying to find a way to turn something that was built for such a sinister purpose into something that will bless people instead of hurt them has been a personal quest,” Jessop said.
Surrounded by high, white walls originally built to keep outsiders away – “a miniature YFZ (Yearning for Zion) in the middle of Hildale,” Jessop said – the mansion and surrounding compound have been transformed into a place of welcome for anyone traveling to, or through, the once tightly controlled and isolated Short Creek community.
“The fear was (the compound) would become used for the same purposes it was built for, and that was unacceptable,” Jessop said.
The name America’s Most Wanted is, of course, a pun alluding to former fugitive Jeffs – but Jessop said it’s more than that.
“We wanted the ‘Most Wanted’ name because the most wanted thing we want is people,” he said.
In addition to serving as a symbol to outsiders that they’re now welcome in the community, Jessop said the facility represents a slowly changing regime and a homeward-beckoning hand for the prodigal sons and daughters of the FLDS community – hundreds of men, women and children who have been ejected from Short Creek over the years.
“Basically, we’ve taken down all the ‘no trespassing’ signs to say ‘welcome home’ to all the hundreds of people who have been removed and isolated from the community,” Jessop said.
The hotel is additionally providing jobs for residents of Short Creek who have lost homes and incomes in the aftermath of Warren Jeffs’ leadership.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to use the facility to have a good life after Jeffs,” Jessop said.
Inside Warren Jeffs’ mansion
The mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast boasts 14 opulent guest rooms, three lobbies, an office guests can utilize, a dining area, conference rooms and even an exercise room complete with a nine-person spa. In one wing of the house, suites containing full kitchens, dining areas and laundry facilities can be rented for extended stays; individual suites can be rented out, or the entire wing.
Adjacent to the mansion are several residences – now converted into apartments – that were originally intended to serve as homes for Jeffs’ high council members.
In adorning the vast hotel, Jessop removed some art pieces and furnishings from his own home to be included in the décor. Large religious paintings hang in several rooms; these and a few placards bearing the word “Zion,” mounted above some of the exterior doors, are the only decorations that allude to the mansion’s former church ties.
“It brings me a personal satisfaction to see every walk of life come and to use the facilities and know that they’re welcome for who and what they are instead of what the property was designed for, which was to isolate and judge people,” Jessop said.
In preparing the mansion for its new life and eradicating the spirit, so to speak, of Warren Jeffs, Jessop didn’t call in the Ghostbusters – but he said a ritual cleansing of sorts did take place.
“We gutted this place with rock ‘n’ roll to make sure it was clean,” Jessop said with a laugh.
“Bon Jovi, ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’” he said. “We’re halfway there.”
History of the house
In 2011, before the imprisoned Jeffs was convicted and sentenced to life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two young girls he took as brides, Jessop said Jeffs communicated to his followers in the Utah/Arizona border towns that if they would build new homes for him and his high council members, God would free them all from prison by the end of 2011.
“He’d been in prison for more than five years – told the people his homes had been desecrated by evil men,” Jessop said.
Firm in the belief that their prophet would be freed if they followed his command, Jeffs’ followers – many of them already financially strained – sacrificed and contributed money and labor to build the new compound on a property Jessop had helped purchase many years prior from the Washington County School District – land that was never part of the United Effort Plan trust. The compound included a new mansion for Jeffs and adjacent homes for the other imprisoned church leaders. Church members completed the compound in less than 60 days.
“They built it on the faith that he would come and live in it,” Jessop said.
But not only did Jeffs not return to Short Creek to live in the mansion, he was convicted and sentenced for sexual crimes against two young girls – one 12 years old and the other 15 – shortly after construction was completed, thus breaking his “if you build it I will come” promise to church members that God would release him from prison after the compound was completed.
“Somehow, God didn’t get the email,” Jessop said.
In the wake of Jeffs’ conviction and sentencing, his band of followers is gradually disintegrating, Jessop said, and Jessop has become determined that the compound, which he now fully owns, will never be used for its original purposes – namely, to isolate FLDS members, exert dictatorship and foster abuse of children and families.
“This is not about Warren Jeffs,” Jessop said. “This is about people that gave their heart in a belief that Mr. Jeffs was innocent prior to his conviction, and they made a religious contribution and devotion to build it, and with that I have a personal level of respect and also a level of responsibility to do what I can to give back to the people that lost so much to build it.”
In addition to providing needed jobs for community members through the bed and breakfast, Jessop said he has used other former church-owned properties to provide housing for local families in need – one of them a Hildale family whose house recently burned down.
Walking through the bed and breakfast, a professional-grade stove was visibly missing from the kitchen area of one of the suites; when asked about it, Jessop said it was given to a local family that needed a stove and will be replaced.
While the bed and breakfast is a visible sign that the times are a-changin’ in Short Creek, Jessop said there is one thing that will not be altered: The walls around the compound will remain – a reminder to community members of the harm that comes with isolation and secrecy.
“If people need those kinds of walls, there’s probably abuse that’s taking place,” Jessop said.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do is take these from being the walls of shame to the walls of fame,” he added.
As Warren Jeffs’ stronghold weakens, Jessop said a restructuring has begun taking place within the FLDS church – and, along with it, a bit of an identity crisis is occurring, he said.
“That restructuring is going to take time,” Jessop said, “but I think as long as people have the support of their friends and their family, they’ll get through it.”
Another change that has recently made headlines is the effort of Arizona’s attorney general, with the recent public backing of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, to disband the Colorado City/Hildale Marshal’s Office, which has historically been the enforcement arm of the FLDS church and riddled with corruption, as was recently made public following the court proceedings in a lawsuit against Colorado City.
The disbandment of the Marshal’s Office will be another step forward in separating the community from the control of Warren Jeffs.
“We welcome that day,” Jessop said.
A long overdue reunion
Though it hasn’t officially opened yet, America’s Most Wanted has already been a catalyst for some of the healing and reunification Jessop said he has hoped for.
Last week, faces long absent from the Short Creek community reappeared in their former hometown as a historical event took place, organized by local resident Harvey Dockstader: a class reunion.
Members of the last classes to graduate from the Colorado City Academy, the classes of ’84 and ’85, traveled from all across the United States in response to what was, for many of them, their first invitation home in decades.
“It was people from Missouri to North Dakota – you know, all walks of life that have been isolated and uninvited,” Jessop said. “(For them) to be able to come back and feel welcome was such a personal satisfaction.”
Reunion attendees were the first to stay as guests in the new America’s Most Wanted Suites and Bed & Breakfast.
“It’s the only place this town has ever seen that’s going to have a welcome sign for real,” Dockstader said.
As he and Dockstader looked through photo after photo from the recently concluded reunion, Jessop became emotional.
“These are incredible,” he said as he and Dockstader watched a slideshow of reunion photos, commenting on seeing cousins and acquaintances they hadn’t talked to in 30 years.
“It was like coming back here and having it be like it was 30 years ago,” Dockstader said.
“There was no animosity, no hate,” he added. “It was just like, ‘Wow, it’s great to see you again.’”
“The people at the reunion, 10-15 years ago they were all being told to hate each other,” Jessop said.
During the reunion, Jessop said it was deeply satisfying to see the walls of the compound, originally built to segregate, now being used to display photos and memorabilia.
“The walls being used to show slideshows, versus division, is one of the top 10 greatest hits of my life,” he said.
As literal walls are repurposed and figurative walls are slowly taken down, Jessop said he hopes old wounds can heal in Colorado City and Hildale – and that family members long estranged from one another as a result of Jeffs’ regime can keep moving forward on the road to reconciliation.
“It’s something that’s been a long time coming,” he said.
- To reserve a room at America’s Most Wanted Suites and Bed & Breakfast, or for more information, visit the hotel’s website or call 800-368-9682
Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.
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