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FLDS church names new president

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 16 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A polygamous church led by Warren Jeffs before he was jailed in 2007 has named a new president who is facing bigamy charges.

Wendell Loy Nielsen, 69, was named president in documents filed with the Utah Department of Commerce. He has long been a senior leader in the hierarchy of the southern Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

He previously served as a counselor to Jeffs and his father, Rulon Jeffs, who led the church until his death in 2002.

Nielsen "has been running the day-to-day affairs of the church for some time," church spokesman Willie Jessop said. "He has the trust of the people."

A successful businessman, Nielsen lives at the faith's Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

He faces three counts of bigamy for having allegedly married three adult women in 2005. Handwritten family records seized by police showed Nielsen may have as many as 21 wives.

In 2008 he was one of 12 men indicted by Texas authorities on criminal charges that followed a raid on the ranch after an allegation that a teen bride had been physically and sexually abused.

Nielsen was named president of the church in papers recorded last month. Warren Jeffs officially resigned as president of the church in late 2007.

It's not clear if Nielsen is now considered the church prophet or if Jeffs retains the role despite his incarceration after a conviction in Utah for rape as an accomplice in 2007.

The state paperwork is a legal formality that clarifies that Nielsen has the authority to make decisions related to church business and legal dealings, church attorney Rodney Parker said.

The FLDS church was first incorporated in 1991 under Rulon Jeffs. The sect's incorporation papers do not require the church president to also serve as its religious leader, although in the past that has been the case, Parker said.

Jeffs resigned as president of the church corporation on Dec. 4, 2007, about a week after being sentenced by a Utah judge.

By then Jeffs had been incarcerated for more than a year awaiting trial. Documents and videotapes released as part of his court proceedings showed he had overseen church dealings from behind bars.

As recently as last week, documents filed in a pending Arizona criminal case by attorneys for Jeffs described him as the acknowledged leader of the church.

Jessop declined to describe Jeffs' current role in the church.

"It's a very uncomfortable discussion," Jessop said. "If we have different belief from the Utah Attorney General's Office, it seems to be a source of prosecution."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's office is involved in a protracted legal dispute with the church over control of a communal trust that holds most of the land and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where the majority of church members live. The state seized the trust in 2005 after allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs.

Shurtleff has publicly questioned whether church representatives — including Nielsen — involved in settlement negotiations have the authority to make decisions or continue to take direction from Jeffs.

"He absolutely does have the authority," Jessop said of Nielsen. "He represents the people."

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