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Ex-polygamous Sect Members Tour Former Worship Center

Michael Chow
AZ Central

They walked through the same double doors they used to, past the foyer and into the meeting hall — a 10,000-square-foot room with a stage on one end and a pulpit and stadium seating on the other.

The polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints used to hold services here, in the Leroy S. Johnson Meetinghouse in Colorado City, Ariz. One by one, people have left that church, or were kicked out. Once they were gone, they weren't allowed back inside this building.

That changed for the first time — and in a way, the only time — Saturday. What was the FLDS meetinghouse will soon be remodeled and gain a secular purpose as a community center. The land trust that owns it, the United Effort Plan, held an open house to give everyone a final chance to see the building as it was.

"It was the gathering spot," send Wendell Nielsen, a former first counselor to FLDS President Warren Jeffs. Nielsen, before he served a sentence in Texas for bigamy, led services in the meetinghouse in 2009 and 2010.

A few steps away from the pulpit Saturday, Nielsen reminisced about the church services, plays, dances and funerals that were held here.

Everyone walked through the building taking a look at the changes the FLDS made over the years. In one corner room, painted white, was a baptismal font. It's constructed from stainless steel and hard white plastic and is far more industrial looking than those found in temples operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially abandoned polygamy in 1890.

"It seems like a distant memory now," he said.

The memories aren't good for everyone. Jeffs and his chosen men would use meetings here to evict people or give orders about what followers could wear, eat or whom they could see. As Nielsen stood behind the pulpit one last time Saturday, former FLDS members on the meeting hall floor could be heard discussing how angry they still were at him for executing Jeffs' directives.

Nielsen said he hadn't been in the meetinghouse in 10 years. Other visitors said they had been shut out of the building longer than that.

Andrew Chatwin, a former FLDS member who has worked with private investigators to document the crimes committed by the FLDS, showed a few men a secret door built into cabinets. The door leads to a ladder going to the attic. The ceiling of the attic was lined with ethernet cable and other wiring for the camera system that is connected to the meetinghouse.

In a room next to the lobby sat copy machines and stacks of printer paper, envelopes and U.S. post office mail crates. It's believed the FLDS used the room to publish Jeffs' writings and mail them to libraries and politicians across the country.

The meetinghouse was named for the president and prophet of the group that became the FLDS. Leroy S. Johnson died in 1986 as the meetinghouse was under construction. His funeral was the first big event held in the building. Many here still refer to it as "The LSJ."

The LSJ was a house of worship the same way the Bada Bing was a strip club on "The Sopranos." Former FLDS members have testified in various courts about how leaders ran many of the sect's activities out of backrooms in the building.

There was a control room where a security force, known as "The God Squad," monitored cameras all over Short Creek (the collective name given to the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City) to watch for a raid by law enforcement and to monitor the interactions of FLDS members. In 2006, the FBI arrived to serve subpoenas on Lyle Jeffs, brother of the president, and other men. The FLDS had prepared for such an eventuality. Jeffs fled to the basement, hopped on an ATV, drove up a ramp and away from the agents.

The meetinghouse was owned by the United Effort Plan. The state of Utah seized the trust in 2005 out of concerns FLDS President Warren Jeffs was mismanaging it and putting people at risk of losing their homes. For 13 years, the trust's managers made no effort to take control of the meetinghouse from the FLDS. That changed in 2018. The FLDS stopped using and maintaining the building. The trust then formally evicted the sect.

The trust plans to partition the meeting hall. The side with a stage will become a performance center. On the other side of a forthcoming wall will be a basketball court. A curtain will cover the pulpit and the stadium seating where the FLDS choir would sit.

Simeon Holm, 45, said when he was a teenager, and still a member of the FLDS, he poured concrete, installed tile and painted white pillars in the LSJ. Kids were pulled out of school to provide the labor, he said. Holm believes returning the meetinghouse to the community is the right thing to do.

"Everybody deserves a piece of this building," Holm said.

Rolene Knudson said she was 10 years old when she would help bring meals to the men and boys constructing the building. Making the LSJ into a community center, in a way, is to return it to its original purpose, she said.

"How this community was built was being able to communicate with each other and hang out together," Knudson said.

No faithful FLDS members were at the open house. Instead, they were down the street at the opening of Short Creek Cottage. It's a charity selling baked goods and homemade clothing and souvenirs to benefit FLDS and other people in Short Creek.

Esther Bistline, one of the few remaining FLDS members in Short Creek, said it was painful to see the meetinghouse lose its religious purpose.

"It was the only place we had that was for our services," Bistline said. "It was built for our services."

She didn't see a scenario where she would go back inside the LSJ.

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