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Utah Relinquishes Oversight Of Trust Linked To Polygamist

Rick Bowmer
AP Photo

A judge said Tuesday it's time to let a community board on the Utah-Arizona border have final say about who is entitled to buy homes and properties in a trust that once belonged to a sect run by notorious polygamist Warren Jeffs, ending court oversight that began 14 years ago.

Judge Richard McKelvie ruled after hearing from attorneys for past and current members of the polygamous group who argued that court oversight is still necessary because the board picks favorites and isn't transparent enough.

McKelvie said he doesn't want to become the arbiter of disputes over who is chosen to buy the properties in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

"I don't want to be the de facto mayor of Short Creek," said McKelvie, referencing the nickname for the community.

The Salt Lake City courtroom was packed with current members of the polygamous group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. The women wore their customary prairie dresses and updo hairdos and the men wore jeans and single-color button down shirts.

They made the roughly 300-mile trip (482 kilometers) to show they don't trust the board overseeing the trust and aren't happy about becoming outcasts in a community they controlled for nearly a century. Recent government crackdowns have led to thousands of members being evicted from their homes and the trust converting their worship house into a community center.

"We would actually just like to stay in our homes and live in our community and live our religion," said Lori Barlow.

The sect is experiencing a major leadership void with Jeffs serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides and his brother Lyle Jeffs serving nearly a five-year sentence for his role in an elaborate food stamp fraud scheme and for escaping home confinement while awaiting trial.

Attorney Zachary Shields, who represents the board that oversees the trust, called the favoritism accusations outrageous and said members are diligent in deciding who is entitled to buy sprawling homes built for large families with multiple wives and dozens of children.

"If grandpa had 200 grandkids and you give it to one of them, there are going to be 199 that are upset," Shields said.

McKelvie said he hasn't heard about any issues in the last three years.

Utah seized control of the trust in 2005 after allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other FLDS leaders. The trust, created in 1942, had more than 700 homes and properties valued at more than $100 million.

In 2014, another state judge that oversaw the case ordered evictions of FLDS members who were refusing to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees.

The board of trustees has overseen the resale of more than 200 homes and buildings to people with ties to the community, most of whom are former FLDS members.

In 2018, the trust sold 61 homes and properties for $3.6 million, according to an annual report.

Attorneys for two separate groups that filed petitions Tuesday calling for more openness from the board said simmering displeasure from community members has boiled over.

"There is a widespread perception that there are problems with the management and favoritism," said attorney Roger Hoole. He also said there is a fear of retaliation if concerns are raised.

Lawyer Lynn Kingston, representing a FLDS man who lost his house and wants monetary compensation, said group members now account for only a small percentage of the community and don't know how to lodge complaints.

"They followed their religion and their homes were taken out from underneath them," Kingston said.