The woman who escaped a polygamous cult and turned its HQ into a refuge
Briell Decker was 18 when she became the 65th wife of US cult leader Warren Jeffs. Can she help heal the town his FLDS sect ruled for generations?
Briell Decker carefully removed the screws from the corners of the window and began pounding on the glass until it started to come loose. Hearing the noise, her sister-in-law, who had been in the lounge area of their trailer home, came in and took the screwdriver away. But it was too late: Decker had already unscrewed one side of the pane; as soon as she was alone again, she opened the window, climbed out into the street and ran away. She was escaping her brother, his wife, and the fundamentalist Mormon cult they all belonged to. Decker had been forced to marry its leader, Warren Jeffs, aged 18.
Six years later, Decker sits on the back porch of the $1.2m mansion where she once lived with Jeffs. I knew I wasnt going to give up, whether I made it out or not, she says of her escape. Nothing was going to stop me.
Everything has changed since then. Jeffs is seven years into a life sentence for sexual assault. Decker has made a life for herself, and recently remarried. The town in which she lives has started to open itself up to people outside the cult for the first time in 90 years, and to welcome back excommunicated members.
For three generations, the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona collectively known as Short Creek have been home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as FLDS, a religious sect that split from the Mormon church in 1930; its members wanted to continue to practise polygamy. The church teaches that having multiple wives (each of whom is assigned to a man) is ordained by God. Women wear long-sleeved prairie dresses that stretch down to the ankles, and pin their hair in a bun.
Now the walls around Short Creeks houses, real and figurative, are coming down. Decker has turned the 44-room mansion where Jeffs and his wives lived into a refuge for other women fleeing the same church. Even though it was his house, it feels good, she says.
Jeffs, a tall, slim man with dark eyes, has been president and prophet of FLDS since 2002, continuing to run the cult from his prison cell. Soon after he assumed the leadership, he began splitting families apart, taking young girls as his own brides, and excommunicating members, mainly young men, from the church. He banned socialising, as well as contact with the outside world. In 2011, he began a life sentence for sexually assaulting two girls aged 12 and 14, whom he described as his spiritual wives. Jeffs, now 62, has wed around 80 women and children over the years, though the state doesnt recognise these marriages. Decker was wife number 65.
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