When you're raised in it, you just go with it. But the more skeptical I got about it, I just came to a point where I decided I didn't want to be in that environment that was pretty heavy-handed. —Gary Hilton
GRANITE — The compound where polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs once served as headmaster is now in pieces and will be replaced with 15 homes.
While the crunching of wood and metal may serve as a relief to some, it brings mixed emotions for people like Robert Schmidt, who served as a groundskeeper over the past seven years.
“Warren’s a piece of work, not a good guy. However, a lot of people that went to school here and were educated by him here, I’ve had the honor of meeting some really, really neat people,” Schmidt said.
He arrived from Illinois and knew nothing of the Fundamentalist LDS Church lifestyle. The 30,0000-square-foot academy building had 44 bedrooms, 20 bathrooms, two full kitchens, two half kitchens and two laundries, all wired with a public address system. The Alta Academy, at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, schooled 300 students a day.
“All of a sudden I end up on the old FLDS compound, and so that was a bit spooky for me at first,” he said.
Schmidt was hired to run a project. At the time he arrived, it was a house of hope and healing for people waiting for a transplant.
Schmidt said over the years, people came to the compound and asked if they could come in and check the place out.
“Some would come in, knock on my door and say, ‘Hey would it be possible to take a look at the place and show my family where I went to church and school as a kid?’ They have a history here,” Schmidt said, “and they were aware that it was all going to be torn down.”
Fred Burton has been living next to the compound since 1985. He said he knew Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ father and the church's former leader, and the family for about 16 years.
"Rulon Jeffs was over the family and was the patriarch of the family. He kept things pretty quiet up here. But things definitely changed after Warren Jeffs took over,” Burton said. “Warren definitely had different attitudes. I think he took advantage of the polygamist situation."
He added there were never any problems in the area that he was aware of.
While the location has a lot of history, Burton is happy to see it come down.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” he said. “It’s an end of a big era here."
Gary Hilton, once Gary Jeffs, was Rulon Jeffs’ son and half-brother to Warren Jeffs. He lived at the compound from the time he was 4 or 5 years old until he was 18.
“Got a lot of fond memories, but bittersweet memories of it,” Hilton said.
He helped build some of the buildings.
“You help build something, it's hard to see it being torn down,” Hilton said. “Doesn't give me a lot of joy. It was kind of sad the way it was just sitting here, deteriorating."
He added that he is glad to see the eyesore go away.
He left the compound when he was 18 years old before Warren Jeffs took over as headmaster.
"When you're raised in it, you just go with it. But the more skeptical I got about it, I just came to a point where I decided I didn't want to be in that environment that was pretty heavy-handed,” Hilton said. “My biggest concern was they told you who you were going to marry, and what you were going to do for the rest of your life, and I didn't want to go along with that."
Warren Jeffs sold the property in 1999 when he moved to the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, where many FLDS followers live. Jeffs is currently serving life in prison after being convicted in Texas in 2011 of sexually assaulting two girls he took as child brides, although church members still consider him their leader and prophet.
The compound will eventually become a neighborhood of 15 homes bought by developer Garbett Homes. The big, main-floor living homes will start in the $600,000 price range.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc