Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
Hi, I'm Sarah Ventry, host of the investigative true crime podcast Unfinished Short Creek from witness stocks and critical frequency. Short Creek is a community on the Utah Arizona border and is home to the FLDS Church.
A break off from the Mormon Church that practices polygamy since FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in 2007.
The people of Short Creek have been forced to reckon with their painful past and struggle to define their future.
As a listener of Guru, I know you're going to find a lot of fascinating similarities between our shows. They're both rooted in the Arizona desert and tell the story of spiritual leaders who have immense power and what happens to their followers after those leaders fall.
I'm about to play you a preview of Unfinished Short Creek, but while you're listening, be sure to subscribe to the show in Stitcher, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
And if you want to listen to the full season of Unfinished Short Creek now without ads, sign up for Stitcher Premium at Stitcher Premium Dotcom Use Promo Code Witness for one month free. Just to note before we start this episode discusses some heavy stuff like underage marriage and sexual abuse. I was 14 years old when I was told that that I was to be married and at some point in my life I knew that I was going to be married because that was the only path that I got as a woman.
And I really did want it, but just not at 14. And Warren was the one that told me that I needed to move forward with this marriage, because if I didn't, then I was no longer welcome in the community. And I found myself driving with my future husband and his family and my mother and Warren Jeffs and his posse of religious leaders to a dingy hotel where I was married to my first cousin inside of a hotel room. There was this moment where my mom stood up and took my hand because they couldn't get me to say I do.
They couldn't get me to agree to this marriage. And she stood up and held my hand and just gripped it. And I had this overwhelming realization that it wasn't just my salvation hanging in the balance. It was hers and it was my little sisters and it was my older sisters. It was my entire family. And that we would all go to hell if I chose to fight this any longer. That day in the hotel, Elissa Wall chose not to send her entire family to hell at age 14, she was married.
Elissa Wall, hold someone responsible for her underage marriage. Warren Jeffs. Warren Jeffs is the leader, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, or FLDS.
The FLDS Church is a break off of the Mormon Church. The split dates back to the early nineteen hundreds when the mainstream church banned polygamy. Some people refused to give up the practice, and for decades, polygamous families were harassed and even thrown in jail. So in the 1930s, these fundamentalist Mormons fled to the Utah Arizona border, where they founded a new community, a community called Short Creek.
You're driving and you see these gigantic craggy red rock cliffs just like towering over the towns like Blue Sky. It's one of the most beautiful, picturesque things I've ever seen. But I feel like on certain days where, like, if you get there right at dusk, it actually can look a little bit foreboding, too. It definitely makes its place look like a fortress. Kind of.
And then there's the Short Creek is in the middle of nowhere. And for early fundamentalists, that made it an ideal refuge, a place to practice their religion in peace.
As you drive down the road, there's like a lot of really large houses and a lot of homes in this area, like this kind of half finished behind really large walls. How tall do you think that wall is? Like six and a half feet. That's like 10 feet. Oh, wow.
Honestly, if you were to drive through Short Creek by accident and you knew nothing about the FLDS or Elisa Wall or Warren Jeffs, you'd look around and just know something was up. Short Creek just has a feeling about it. That's unlike any other place you've ever been before. All right. So now we're coming to the western edge of town. We are now just about at the state line. And then my favorite marker of the state line is actually the border store right here.
So it's just a little gas station that sits right on the border of Short Creek is actually two towns split by a state line. There's Hildale in Utah and Colorado City in Arizona.
So right now, we just pass from Arizona and Utah. Doesn't it feel better? Sarah? Oh, it feels so much worse when the sun sets just our place. This feels like a good moment to introduce ourselves. I'm Ash Sanders. And if it's not obvious, I grew up a proud Utahns. And I'm Sarah Ventry. I'm an even prouder Arizonan, but we're not on the border of our two home states driving together in my Prius to have a state off.
We're here in Short Creek because we want to tell a story about this place from this place.
So as we cross Arizona Avenue, we come actually to the creek bed.
Yeah, this is what this town is named for. So there's this creek or a creek for all you people who don't live here that slows down.
Most locals call Short Creek the creek, and they call themselves kicker's. We just passed Cook Avenue and the only reason I mention that is because most of the streets in town are named after families who have lived here for several generations. So there's a Johnson Avenue, a Cook Avenue. What are some of the other big ones like Jastrow? Isn't there a Bahlul?
For decades, Short Creek was a church town. Almost everyone who lived here was fundamentalist, and the church taught some pretty extreme views. Women were told to be submissive to their husbands and fathers. Black people were considered coerced and being gay was a mortal sin. All the power in the community was in the hands of white men, they around the church and the church ran everything. The school, the government, city services, everything. For the faithful, the system worked and they continued to build God's kingdom together.
But as the community grew, the rest of the world took notice of Short Creek. On the right is the old schoolhouse, this is actually where in 1953, when the community was raided, a number of people from the community got together and held hands and sang songs.
And they all kind of expected that the government would come in and tear their families apart or send them to jail.
Since polygamy is illegal, any attempt to break up the community seemed to have the reverse effect. It made the FLDS people more united, more faithful, more certain the outside world was the enemy. In the end, though, the greatest threat to this community did not come from the outside. So this is Warren Jeffs mansion looking thing, a very, very large house surrounded by huge like probably like 15 foot tall, thick concrete walls. Simply believe the words of the prophet and they start to grow everything.
Warren Jeffs became the FLDS prophet in 2002 and he started making changes that tore Sugarcreek apart. He doubled down on the church's prejudiced doctrines and practices, causing the Southern Poverty Law Center to name the FLDS a hate group while Warren Jeffs was prophet. He also ratcheted up the church's strict religious rules, and those who wouldn't obey had to go. Thousands of people left or were kicked out of the church. This community that was once so united was suddenly divided. What Warren Jeffs did is he killed the people, sold.
He's still my prophet and I love him. The guy had used all that love and loyalty and used it to exploit little girls. Warren Jeffs has had a lot of lies told about him. OK, on the right is my temporary home, the Tzion suites of Hildale, and it used to be prophet Rulon Jeffs house, Rulon Jeffs, that's r u l o n was the prophet before his son Warren.
When Ruan died, he had over 60 wives.
So it's like this big sprawling brick building. There's like room after room after room after room. That was four different wives and different kids. So, like, really easy to turn into a hotel.
As divided as Short Creek might be. Almost everyone agrees on one thing. The media rarely gets the story right. People in the community see reporters dropping in, asking questions about polygamy and not taking the time to understand the people or the faith.
And that makes most FLDS really hesitant to talk to journalists, which is why together, Sara and I have reported on this community for four and a half years. We've spent a lot of time in Short Creek getting to know the people and the place. And last summer they're actually embedded in Short Creek. She lived there for three months.
I rented a room in the house of the former prophet.
I bought fresh cheese from the local dairy and I got my own water from pumps that draws straight from the canyon.
It's really hard to fill a five gallon bucket of water while recording.
I went to a fundamentalist church with plural families to a barbecue with its believers and to a different barbecue with those who still believe I searched all over for good coffee and spicy food day after day.
I lived here in the community forging relationships so we could hear from voices on all sides.
Oh, let's just get along. Really. Let's see. You took all our businesses. They've taken most of our schools.
How far does freedom of religion go?
The federal courts had to come in here and straighten it all out. Do you feel like your church was discriminated against through that trial?
Yes, I do. In order for him to have complete control of people, he had to capitalize on their fears.
When a concern came along, it was more emphasized. Live your religion. Welcome to America. It is no longer the wild, wild west. Short Creek is a community divided by much more than a state line, it's divided into believers and ex believers who disagree about almost everything religion, democracy and who gets to call this place home.
Short Creek has a lot of unfinished business, which in many ways looks like America's unfinished business in this season. We'll hear stories from many people, but we'll start with a woman whose story takes us into the heart of this community's complicated history, a woman who helps us understand how this place became so divided and whose decision to challenge Warren Jeffs changed the future of Short Creek. Hi, Lisa. Is your house the one with the white Tahoe in front? Shortridge isn't just a story, it's people, it's resilience, it's a narrative that is far bigger than just Warren Jeffs or Sugarcreek.
It really is a part of humanity on a larger scale from witness docs and critical frequency unfinished. Short Creek is out. Now listen in. Stitcher, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Witness stocks from Stitchery. The eyes of the country are on the Senate, as Kamala Harris definitely questions a witness at their confirmation hearing. Millions of voters lean in closer to their TVs as they watch the prosecutor turn. Senator, make her case over and over again.
The scene is broadcast around the world. And Kamala Harris is at the center of one of the most controversial, dramatic moments in our democracy. But behind the questions and quotes, who is Kamala Harris? What motivates her? What sort of leader is she? Kamala? Next in line is a new podcast from Wondering. And MSNBC host Joy Reid will take you inside the unique journey of our country's first black vice presidential candidate from her upbringing in California to making her mark in Washington, D.C..
You'll hear Comilla story, as it's never been told before, interviews with those who know her best. We'll introduce you to the real Kamala Kamala next. In Line premiers October 5th. Subscribe to Kamala next in line on Apple podcast or Spotify. Or you can listen ad free by joining one plus in the wandering app.