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Wendell Nielsen

HOUSTON — Al Holm lived his entire life as a member of the Fundamentalist LDS Church — until he confessed two years ago to being addicted to online porn sites and was expelled.

Now, contrite, lonely and mourning the loss of his family, he's trying to work his way back into the secretive polygamist sect.

But he can't find anyone with the authority to pardon him.

"There are a lot of people underground," said Holm, a long-distance truck driver. "I know it's difficult for me to get in touch with (the leaders) when I need them."

Legal pressure is mounting against the sect on several fronts. Courts forced Texas authorities to return the hundreds of children it seized in April from the FLDS ranch near Eldorado but is building a criminal case as it investigates alleged forced marriages between minor girls and older men there. A massive civil suit against the church is winding its way through the courts in Utah.

And the group's leaders appear to be underground and possibly on the run.

In Utah, former members are suing them and the church they lead for millions of dollars. Should criminal charges be filed in Texas, the church's leaders will likely be targets, said a knowledgeable source close to the sect who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the proceedings.

"I expect (Texas authorities) are going to get to the leadership," the source said.

From his Utah jail cell, the group's "prophet," Warren Jeffs, issued very few church-related communiques, according to a court-appointed special trustee.

The trustee, Bruce Wisan, had access to the transcripts of all Jeffs' jailhouse visits and copies of his written correspondence from the time Jeffs was arrested in August 2006 until his recent transfer to an Arizona jail where he awaits trial on four counts of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor, stemming from the marriages of two girls. Jeffs was sentenced last year in Utah to 10 years to life in prison for being an accomplice to rape.

Wisan said he was ordered by the court not to divulge the contents of Jeffs' communications but said, "It's a lot of what I'd call family stuff, really mundane minutia."

So if Jeffs is little more than a figurehead, who's calling the shots inside the FLDS?

Wisan said no one — not even well-placed members — seems certain of the answer. "I've got active FLDS members that I talk to, and they don't know," he said.

Instead, people make guesses about who among a handful of likely contenders has stepped in or will step in to become the group's de facto leader.

They include:

• William Timpson Jessop, who once was anointed by Jeffs to be the sect's bishop.

• Lyle Jeffs; a half-brother of Jeffs who is said to lead the sect's enclaves on the Utah-Arizona border.

• Merril Jessop, who was in charge of the Yearning For Zion ranch in West Texas at the time of the raid that removed the children. He is said to remain the leader in Texas, though he was reported missing by a wife last month during a custody hearing.

• Wendell Nielsen, a man in his late 60s listed in a church document seized during the raid as having more wives — 21 — than any other resident of the Yearning For Zion ranch.

As Jeffs' inner circle comes under increasing fire, some speculate there may be room for those out of favor with him to ascend to leadership positions.

Carolyn Jessop, who chronicled her journey out of the FLDS in her best-selling memoir "Escape," believes a number of men — including Willie Jessop, Warren Jeffs' former bodyguard who has emerged as a sect spokesman in Eldorado (and is not the same man as William T. Jessop) — are probably angling to step in.

The 10,000 or so followers of the insular group are now more scattered than ever outside their Utah-Arizona home turf. Some are in South Dakota; many remain in Texas.

At the Texas ranch, the sect stopped using its massive white limestone temple after authorities searched it during the raid in early April, said the group's attorney, Rod Parker, who is not a sect member.

FLDS parents won a spectacular court victory against the state of Texas last month, winning back more than 440 children placed into protective custody. But only about one-third to one-half of the families that lived at the YFZ Ranch have returned there, Parker said. The rest are dispersed across the state, living in apartments and working jobs wherever they can find them.

In Utah, Wisan has seized control of the church's assets, valued at upward of $100 million and consisting of more than 750 homes, businesses, schools, parks — even zoos. Wisan is in charge of deciding how to use the trust to compensate some of the 1,200 or so former members who contributed to that wealth but left — either after being expelled or departing on their own — with nothing.

For the minority who seek compensation, Wisan said, the decisions can be wrenching. "Families were moved around, broken up, wives reassigned. So who does the house really belong to?"

What strikes many is the grip the church maintains on even the men who have been tossed out and stripped of everything — their families, property and way of life. Men like Holm, the long-distance truck driver.

Two years after being expelled, he'd do almost anything to get back in the church.

As he crisscrosses the country in his truck, Holm tries to make sense of it all. He has watched the video of Jeffs tearfully telling a jailhouse visitor he was never the prophet, and he has seen photographs of Jeffs kissing underage girls.

The photos, he said, "shocked me like you wouldn't believe."

Holm said he recalled very few underage marriages. So it stunned him to see the man he admires identified with the practice in news stories.

He has struggled with whether Jeffs was the one man on earth with a direct connection to God. Now, he leaves that question to Jeffs.

"I'm only as torn as he is," Holm said.

Distributed by New York Times News Service