SALT LAKE CITY — A sprawling 44-bedroom house surrounded by towering brick walls that was the home base for polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs has been converted into a sober living center by Evangelical missionaries. It's the latest sign of his group's dwindling control of the small community on the Utah-Arizona border.
Jeffs hasn't lived in the three-story home known as the "Big House" for years because he's serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides. In his absence, his religious group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, has been weakened amid government crackdowns and an exodus of members who were kicked out or decided to leave.
The 29,000-square-foot house that was built around 2000 has been modernized, but remnants of Jeffs' legacy remain.
A secret room under the home's main entrance can only be accessed through a linen closet by pulling a hidden latch that resembles a light switch that allows a person to slide open the shelving and push open a door, said Glyn and Jena Jones, who run the sober living center. The safe that Jeffs used to store religious records remains inside.
On the outside of the chimney, letters run vertically that read, "Pray and obey." Inside the house, there is still wiring that was likely used for surveillance cameras and to tap into phones throughout the house, the Joneses said.
The home is among about 150 that have been redistributed to former sect members in recent years after a church-run trust was seized by the Utah state government. A couple of homes have been converted into bed and breakfasts.
Jeffs' 65th wife, Briell Decker, was granted the right to buy the home for a discounted price of $600,000 by a community board overseeing the redistribution. Decker, who left the FLDS some six years ago, said she didn't have enough money so she sought someone who would help her turn a house that stood as a symbol of oppression to her and other former sect members into something that would spark hope.
That's how she met the Joneses, a California couple who said they felt called by God three years ago to move with their teenage daughter to the community that straddles the Utah-Arizona border. They are affiliated with the faith-based Dream Center network out of Phoenix that has 267 centers around the world.
An arrangement allows the Dream Center to lease the house for a year with an option to buy it if everything goes well, said Jeff Barlow, executive director of the organization that oversees properties in the trust in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
The Jones said they hope the "Short Creek Dream Center " helps former FLDS members transition into life outside of the secluded sect and receive life skills help, said the Joneses. They plan to focus on women and people in need of a sober living environment. They also want to make the house a place where the community can gather and reconnect by playing basketball, video games or board games and watching movies and having potluck dinners. There is a chapel for Sunday worship.
Sponsors adopt rooms and choose the decor. There are more than 50 bathrooms and two commercial sized kitchens in the house and capacity for about 70 people, Glyn Jones said.
The community's demographics are shifting as former members seize more control of a town at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs that had been run for a century by leaders of the sect, which is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it.
Decker, 32, is remarried and now lives in the Salt Lake City area. She was known as Lynette Warner when she was forced into an arranged marriage with Jeffs at the age of 18, which she said made her feel terrified.
She said she lived in the house for about four months but Warren Jeffs was never there because he was on the run from the FBI on accusations of child sexual abuse. She called the conversion of the house a "dream come true."
"I wanted it to benefit other people," Decker said. "I wanted people leaving the religion to have somewhere to land."