In Utah, Hope and Healing After Escaping a Cult

DEFENDERS: A new documentary series about five women taking action and helping others in remarkable ways.

This is the fourth of five DEFENDERS episodes scheduled to run on Great Big Story.

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The eleventh of fourteen siblings, Briell Decker grew up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — a Mormon denomination that practices polygamy and upholds a belief that only one living person can share God’s word with the faithful.

By the time Briell turned 18, that person was FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs. Among the prophet’s many powers was deciding who would marry who, and he chose Briell to be his 65th wife. What the world knows now is that among an eventual 79 wives, Warren would marry girls as young as 12. His crimes would put place him on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and eventually land him a prison sentence of life plus twenty.

Warren Jeff’s former compound, converted into the Short Creek Dream Center

For Briell, marriage to the prophet was its own kind of prison. Warren moved her into one of his many homes, where she lived with 30 other wives. Dismayed by her circumstance, Briell hid herself away, refusing to ever consummate the marriage. From prison, where Warren maintained control of the FLDS, he retaliated, sending FLDS faithful to intimidate, drug and even threaten to kill her.

Inside Warren Jeff’s former home

After three years of torment and many attempts to break free, Briell managed to escape through a window. Her stranger-than-fiction tale would take her all the way from the Utah-Arizona border to Tennessee, where a new life seemed possible. But something called her back to the town from which she escaped.

When she learned she had the right to property the State of Utah had seized from her incarcerated ex-husband, Briell jumped at the chance. Now, she and a team have transformed that place of pain into the Short Creek Dream Center, a community organization that provides housing, counseling, job skills and other vital resources to adults and children who have left the church.

Warren Jeffs will die in prison. Briell is free. And she’s waiting with open arms to welcome her community into the light.