SALT LAKE CITY — Katie Cox has lived in her 13-bedroom home in a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border for more than four decades — but she's never had a deed.
That changed Friday when Cox became one of 24 families granted ownership of their homes in what marked a small but significant first step toward the redistribution of more than $100 million in properties in a community where Warren Jeffs' sect is based.
The homes have been in state control since 2005 due to allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other sect leaders.
Since the trust was created by the fundamentalist Mormon sect in 1942, church leaders held the deeds while others lived in the homes.
"It feels like the clouds have broken and a ray of sunshine has come out," Cox said. "Now I have freedom to make choices. Up until now, I didn't have anywhere else to move. I couldn't sell this house. I was pretty much stuck here."
She and her husband, and one other plural wife, were members of the early semblance of a group that came to be known as The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church and its 15 million members worldwide abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibit it.
Cox and her family never followed the group when Jeffs or his father were in charge, but they continued living in a community they helped build.
After they and other families sued the church in the late 1980s, her husband was awarded the right to keep the home while he was alive. But after he died in 2006, uncertainty returned for Cox, who feared the current FLDS leaders would try to kick her out.
Her three-story, 5,400-square-foot home set on nearly one acre was one of two dozen homes handed over to ecstatic families Friday in the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
"This is extremely significant," said Val Oveson, spokesman for a court-appointed accounting firm that has overseen the trust for nine years. "This is what was contemplated all along."
Most of the families paid $5,000 to $10,000 for the land, closing costs and any unpaid occupancy fees, Oveson said. The most any family paid was $26,000 on one of the larger homes. Families were charged 15 cents per square foot, he said.
The homes, which have assessed values that range from $68,400 to $288,000, were "no-brainer" cases with only single claims, Oveson said. Many of the 725 other houses and properties still stuck in the trust are expected to have multiple claims from people who lived there at one time, or helped build them or made significant upgrades.
In Colorado City, the homes still need to be subdivided before deeds can be given.
A Utah judge is preparing to appoint a board of community members to take over the trust and tackle the difficult decisions. That's on hold, though, until Utah officials find a way to get residents to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees on the homes. Several years of unpaid fees have deprived the trust of more than $4 million.
State officials are threatening to evict people from 14 homes if the back fees aren't paid, following through on an order from State Judge Denise Lindberg, who said this summer she was fed up with a free rider problem in the community.