By A. Pawlowski
With its scenic location, cheery website and the promise of "quaint comfy rooms," you might never suspect the complicated past of Utah's newest inn. Only the name offers a clue.
Welcome to America's Most Wanted Suites and Bed & Breakfast, a compound originally built for polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving life in prison for sexually assaulting a girl he took as a child bride.
Constructed by his followers at the self-proclaimed prophet's request in 2011, the Hildale, Utah, property now belongs to Willie Jessop, Jeffs' former bodyguard-turned-hotelier. It opened to the public last week, allowing guests to get a glimpse of some of the mansion's menacing features, such as double thick walls, solid doors that require extra hinges and a 12-foot-tall concrete fence that surrounds the property.
"I left it there so people could go and see how paranoid he was," Jessop, 44, told NBC News about his former boss. "It was my hope that the walls would help be a reminder to the community that if you need walls like this, you're probably doing something wrong."
Jessop, who once served as a spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), said he refused to defend his former boss when he found out what Jeffs had done and was excommunicated. He bought the compound for $3.6 million at an auction last year after winning a lawsuit against church leaders, the St. George News reported. Jessop had accused them of ruining his excavation business and harassing his family.
Since Jeffs was already behind bars when the compound was built, he and his followers never lived in the building. Still, Jessop knows that Jeffs' notoriety is part of the hotel's character, thus the nod to "America's Most Wanted" in the B&B's name — a reminder that the polygamous sect's former leader was once listed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
"I didn't feel like it would be very honest to try to cover up the past, but I didn't want it to be about Warren either," Jessop said.
Travelers won't find many mementos or hints of the hotel's link to the FLDS. Jessop prefers to focus on what he proudly calls a "world class bed and breakfast." There are 14 rooms available to book, including a king suite with a private kitchen. Each room has a bathroom, climate control, a smart TV and access to Wi-Fi, Jessop said. Rates start at $85 per night for single occupancy, with the king suite going for $200 per night. There's also a spa and an exercise room.
He also took down all the "No trespassing" signs around the property — he counted seven — and replaced them with "Welcome home" signs.
"We're just trying to attract people of all walks of life who'd like to come to the community and feel welcome… (it's) something that could be positive instead of sinister," Jessop said.
Utah's tourism officials are cautiously optimistic about the project.
"We are strong believers in entrepreneurship and economic development through tourism, particularly in our rural communities, however, we would never promote or condone the actions of Warren Jeffs, the property's previous owner," said Jay Kinghorn, a spokesman for the Utah Office of Tourism, in a statement.
"It is our understanding that the new owners are hoping to use the property as a catalyst to create a fresh start in the community and we certainly hope they are successful in that endeavor."
The inn is located just a short drive from Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and the Grand Canyon. Many of the FLDS Church's 10,000 members live in Hildale and nearby Colorado City, Arizona, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Jessop wanted to convert Jeffs' private residence, which was built adjacent to the main building, into a museum but decided instead to use it for housing for locals in need. It's now home to a family whose house burned down, he said.
Haunted by what happened at Jeffs' Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, Jessop said his main goal was to prevent anything similar from taking place at the Utah compound. "My number one concern was that it not ever be used to violate little girls in the community," Jessop said.
All the attention he's getting for the B&B has been a pleasant surprise, he added.
"It would be fun if people come and stay because it's in the heart of a national park and because it was in a unique community that treated them well."