Utah AG seeks solutions to FLDS land feud

Posted at 8:17 AM, Nov 30, 2012

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. -- Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff pleaded with the crowd: "We need you to tell them the truth about Warren Jeffs."

At the end of a long meeting Friday discussing how to settle the legal battle over the Fundamentalist LDS Church's United Effort Plan Trust, the attorney general was trying to reach an audience that was not there.

"You have to... you have to please to convince the people here, who he is, so they can get some better decision making," Shurtleff implored the audience.

The thousands of members of the FLDS Church were not present. The imprisoned polygamist leader has reportedly issued another edict to the faithful: "answer them nothing."

Willie Jessop, who was a former bodyguard and spokesman for the FLDS Church, said members still in the group had a choice: show up to the meeting or lose their wives and children. He decried the situation in Hildale and Colorado City, but praised the attorney general for stepping in to try to preserve the UEP.

"This people was abandoned," he said. "They didn't know it. They still don't know it."

Jeffs' most recent edict is the same was given in 2005, when the courts took control of the United Effort Plan Trust over allegations that Jeffs and other Fundamentalist LDS Church leaders had mismanaged it and defaulted on civil lawsuits. At the time, Jeffs was on the FBI's Most Wanted List and a fugitive.

The UEP, with assets estimated at $110 million, controls most of the land and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. It is based on the early-Mormon concept of a "united order," where property is put into a common pot and then doled out according to wants and needs. But critics say the UEP has been corrupted by Jeffs, who has kicked people out of their homes and cut them off from their families.

After the state takeover, faithful FLDS members sued, arguing that it violated their First Amendment right to consecrate their property to their religion. But courts have ruled that the FLDS waited years too late to act, and now the property may be subdivided and sold off to pay off millions in debts that have racked up in administering the UEP.

At Friday's meeting, options were presented that included:

  • A board of trustees would take over running the UEP Trust without a court-appointed fiduciary and with limited court involvement.
  • Dissolving the UEP Trust and distributing the assets.
  • Liquidating the assets of the UEP Trust.
  • Negotiate a new arrangement that could cover various aspects of the UEP Trust.

Any of the options, or a new idea would require the approval of the judge in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court that oversees the UEP Trust. Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed fiduciary overseeing it, said Friday he supported distributing the trust. So did a straw poll of hands of the 150 or so in attendance when asked by Shurtleff.

But there are issues that must be worked out. The attorney general, Wisan and a representative of the Arizona Attorney General's Office were peppered with questions about how a newly reformed UEP Trust would work.

"What if more than one person wants the same house?" asked a woman.

"That's a very real concern," Wisan responded.

Also of concern, the impact of Texas prosecutors' decision to attempt to seize the FLDS Church's sprawling "Yearning for Zion" ranch, the site of the faith's first temple. With Jeffs serving a life sentence for child sex assault related to underage marriages, Texas prosecutors argued the ranch was purchased with ill gotten gains and was used to further the commission of crimes.

It was unknown if FLDS members would return to Hildale, but it was a concern for the fiduciary to find housing for everyone. Shurtleff said it was also unknown if the Texas ranch is a part of the UEP.

For many people living on UEP land, the future is uncertain. Mark Knudsen, who left the FLDS Church last year, said he wants to continue to live in his Hildale home. His family remains within the church.

"I don't want to really get that involved in the battle," he told FOX 13. "I just want to be left alone and not kicked out of my house."