HILDALE, Washington County — State officials on Friday began the long-overdue process of formulating a plan to redistribute property and businesses on the Utah-Arizona border belonging to a polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs.
They discussed four options with current and former members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church in a town hall-style meeting, which came seven years after Utah seized control of properties in Hilldale and in Colorado City, Ariz., following allegations of financial mismanagement by Jeffs and other church leaders.
The Utah attorney's general office presented four ideas: creating a board of trustees that can function with limited court involvement; dissolving the trust and letting the community decide how to redistribute the properties; dissolving the trust, auctioning off properties and giving people credits to buy them, and negotiating a new settlement.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who arrived late due to travel delays, called it an opportunity for members, nonmembers and ex-members of the FLDS church to ensure they don't come away empty handed.
Utah took over a church trust that controls the properties in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other church leaders. The state, which has a statutory duty to protect charitable trusts, stepped in because the trustees failed to respond to lawsuits, said Utah attorney general spokesman Paul Murphy. A November federal appeals court ruling cleared the way for the state to break up the church trust and sell homes, businesses and farms in the two small towns.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage girls he considered his brides. He continues to try to lead the sect of about 10,000 people from jail. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Shurtleff conceded that he can't stop people from getting property and giving it back to the church, but he delivered a passionate plea during the meeting for community members to spread the truth about Warren Jeffs.
"He is a convicted child rapist," Shurtleff said. "He is never coming out of prison."
Willie Jessop, a former church member who attended the meeting, said Jeffs sent an edict from jail forbidding members from attending the meeting. That didn't stop dozens of his followers from attending and risking being ex-communicated, he said.
"I think everyone is concerned about the status of their property," Jessop said.
But there were no city officials or law enforcement from Hilldale or Colorado City, Jessop said.
Officials from Hilldale and Colorado City opted not to attend the meeting because it would be a no-win situation for them to get involved and pick a side, said Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing the two cities. They will become involved when a proposal is finalized, he said.
Although state officials stressed that the four ideas they presented were merely ideas, not final proposals, those at the meeting expressed the most support for the option allowing the community to decide on the property distribution.
Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed trust manager, suggested distribution should be handled on a case-by-case basis and with as minimal disruption as possible. He spoke at length about the option of letting community members decide how to redistribute the homes and property.
Any plan must be approved by the 3rd District Court.
Shurtleff's staff said the community will have to prove a contribution of time, talent, money or property to be eligible to get assets from the trust, regardless of church involvement. The staff said the trust must remain religiously neutral and its assets cannot go toward polygamous practices.
Before any homes are turned over to community members, they must sell some of the property to pay off a $7 million debt that accumulated during the lengthy court battle. The properties were estimated to be worth at least $100 million.Comment on this story
Bill Richards, an attorney representing the Arizona attorney general's office, said there is no way to know how long this process will take. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne did not attend.
Rod Parker, a Nevada attorney for the FLDS, did not return phone calls from The Associated Press.
The meeting exceeded the expectations of the Utah Attorney General's office, said spokesman Murphy.
"We heard some really good ideas and some legitimate concerns," Murphy said. "I heard a lot more common ground than I've heard in a long time."