SALT LAKE CITY — The future of a 10,000-strong southern Utah-based polygamous church remained uncertain Tuesday, a day after a new president replaced its jailed leader.
Senior church elder William E. Jessop became president of the corporation that is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after filing papers with the Utah Department of Commerce on Monday.
Warren Jeffs didn't formally resign the presidency, and it's unclear whether he approved or even had prior knowledge of Jessop's plan.
"It's really going to be interesting now to see No. 1, Warren Jeffs' reaction, and No. 2, what the people's reaction will be," said Anne Wilde, co-founder of the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices. "Whether this will cause a division in the group isn't clear."
Utah Department of Commerce rules don't require a resignation to install a new president for any corporation.
Commerce spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton said Tuesday that Jeffs, 55, has the option of mounting a challenge to Jessop, but her agency hadn't heard from him.
If he did contest it, the department would place a "hold" on Jessop's papers, Bolton said. Both sides would then have up to 30 days to prove their right to the presidency.
If it can't be resolved, the state would ask the courts to settle the matter.
A legal loss for Jessop would mean the church's presidency reverts back to Jeffs — even though he's in a Texas jail awaiting trial on bigamy and sexual assault charges for allegations involving offenses with underage girls.
Former church members and outsiders say Jeffs' reign has not always been benevolent. The FLDS border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., became more insular, and tall fences were built around many homes to keep outsiders at bay, former church members say.
Some men who were deemed unfaithful — sometimes for reasons that were unclear — were excommunicated and forced to leave their families behind.
"It would be nice to see people being invited back to their homes and to their wives and children to finish raising them and caring for them," said Andrew Chatwin, a former FLDS member who still lives in the house he built in Hildale. "It would be nice to see some of the fences come down."
For Chatwin, 42, those types of changes would signal that church members are accepting Jessop as a new kind of leader.
"Warren had a horrible hold on the community. ... He was such a tyrant," Chatwin said. "I think (Jessop) sees the value of family. I'm glad to see him standing up. We need leaders like him who have the values of the old days."
Chatwin was pushed out of the church after a dispute with Jeffs more than decade ago. A new leader, he says, could bring a long overdue family reunion.
"I might again be able to see my sisters, who I haven't seen in years," said Chatwin, who believes Jessop is being backed by senior church leaders rumored to have been ejected in recent months.
"The next couple of weeks are going to say a lot," he said.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Jessop, 41, said his decision to assume the presidency "is an attempt to restore the church."
Wilde believes any potential rift would depend largely on Jeffs' next move. He already ceded authority of the church once to Jessop in a recorded telephone call made from a southern Utah jail in 2007, although Jessop didn't act on the directive at the time.
"I think that if there were to be a person to step forward right now, William E. Jessop is probably the best person," Wilde said. "It seems like a step in the right direction. ... I think it's really been difficult for them since Warren's been in jail."
An attempt to reach Jeffs in jail for comment Tuesday was unsuccessful, and a telephone call to his Texas-based criminal attorney was not immediately returned.
A message left for Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the church in civil matters, also wasn't returned.
President of the church since 2002, Jeffs has spent most of the last four years behind bars. He was arrested in 2006 and convicted the next year on Utah charges of rape as an accomplice. The conviction was later overturned, and Jeffs was extradited to Texas. Trial is set for later this year.3 comments on this story
Meanwhile, Canadian authorities are investigating allegations that underage girls from a church enclave in British Columbia were transported across international boundaries to marry Jeffs and other church men in 2005.
Despite his years behind bars, Jeffs has maintained control over the lives of the church through letters, recorded sermons, telephone calls and messages passed through others.
Many in Utah's other polygamous churches are now wondering what's next for members of the FLDS, many of whom are their family members.
"There are going to be people who will no longer follow Warren Jeffs and those who feel that that is where their eternal salvation is," said Ann Wright, a member of Centennial Park, a northern Arizona sect that broke from the FLDS in 1984. "I think that depends on where each person is spiritually and where they are in their journey."