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To take Warren Jeffs' ranch, Texas follows the money

Published November 30, 2012 9:03 am

Polygamy • Legal experts say the state may have problems proving the case in court.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In its latest action against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the state of Texas has tried to answer the question many have asked for years.

Where does the FLDS get its money?

The 91-page affidavit Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed this week lists businesses and individuals who gave money to the polygamous sect toward the purchase and construction of the sprawling, multimillion-dollar ranch built by followers of Warren Jeffs, the scene of multiple sexual assaults of underage girls. The search warrant affidavit, filed in support of Abbott's effort to seize the ranch through the courts, details $1.8 million in deposits originating from Utah between 2003 and 2006. But the Utah money may amount to much more than that. Abbott's investigators found millions of dollars in cash deposits whose sources aren't known.

The financial transactions lay the groundwork for a legal strategy that authorities hope will result in seizure of the ranch because it was purchased for the purpose of facilitating criminal activity — including the sexual abuse of underage girls.

But the move to seize the sprawling ranch, which is valued at a total of $33.8 million, is "highly unusual," observers said Thursday.

"Most people who are convicted of a crime don't have 1,700-acre ranches," said law professor Gerald Reamey, of St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "The state has so far proven in the trial courts that some criminal activity occurred on the ranch involving about 10 of these people. To seize the entire community on that basis is unusual."

About a quarter of the money used to buy the YFZ Ranch property in 2003 came from Western Precision, a high-tech machining company started and run by FLDS members until the polygamous sect's communal property trust based along the Utah-Arizona border was taken over by the state of Utah.

Sect leaders moved Western Precision out of the trust shortly before the 2005 takeover, but court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan traced FLDS financial transactions to bring the building and equipment, as well as several other trust assets, back into the fold.

A priesthood record from Jeffs dated Dec. 7, 2005, and cited in the affidavit says Western Precision made almost $11 million in profits that year.

"I have always wondered why the feds haven't gone after the money laundering," Wisan said Thursday. "Warren has done, the FLDS leadership has done, a lot of financial transactions without any tax reporting, and yet no tax authorities [have filed charges.]"

The YFZ Ranch was also the scene of a massive raid in Texas in 2008 that led to criminal charges against 12 FLDS men for sexual assault and bigamy, as well as other charges connected to underage marriages. Jeffs, 56, was convicted last year of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as plural wives, and is now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.

The search and seizure warrant made public Wednesday is similar to a forfeiture warrant to seize the assets of a drug dealer, for example. But in the case of the YFZ Ranch, the listed owners haven't been convicted of any crimes, and state could have difficulty proving that the entire property should be forfeit.

When police bust rural methamphetamine labs, for example, they don't typically seize the entire farm or ranch where the lab was located, Reamey said.

Also, unlike assets bought with drug money, authorities don't allege that the funds used to buy the ranch were purchased with ill-gotten gains. Instead, they believe the money was transferred between a patchwork of religious and business entities in amounts just under $10,000, a type of money laundering known as structuring that was purposely designed to avoid the attention of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Most of those transactions started in Utah, creating a flow of money used to buy the Eldorado property in 2003 and make the dusty land into a working ranch capable of supporting hundreds of elite members of the FLDS.

The investigation, however, is somewhat troubling for Austin attorney and Baylor University professor Greg White.

"Apart from the facts of this case, it is a bit uncomfortable to know that the government could trace money being given to a religious organization, and then claim that because of the way it is structured, it amounts to criminal activity," he said via email.

The money trail detailed in the affidavits hasn't led to any new charges yet, though it could also be investigated in Utah, said Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap.

"If there are allegations of misconduct in Utah that we can prove, we would not rule out charges in Utah," Belnap said. "It depends on what the evidence is, what we can prove, and also whether changes are pending in Texas."

The sect will have a chance to fight the effort to seize the ranch at a forfeiture hearing, though it had not been scheduled as of Thursday. A spokesman for the Texas Attorney General's Office declined to comment Tuesday on what the state might do with the property if the forfeiture is approved.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this story. —

Texas tracks Utah cash

The state of Texas has documented $1.8 million in money from people and businesses in Utah that went toward the purchase and construction of the YFZ Ranch from 2003 through 2006.

$150,000 • Fred Jessop, Cedar City and Hurricane

$165,634 • Tonto Supply Inc., Hurricane

$20,130 • General Rock Products Inc., Hurricane

$60,000 • Dave's Builders, St. George

$655,000 • FLDS church, Cedar City and Hurricane

$80,700 • Cooperative Mercantile Corp., Hurricane

$2,440.36 • Isaac Jeffs, Hildale

$22,050 • William Jessop, Hildale

$15,000 • Details Wireless Inc., Hilldale and Hurricane

$250,000 • Western Precision, Hilldale

$31,960.70 • Paragon Contractors, Hilldale

$12,000 • Allco Truss, Hilldale

$3,301.21 • Robert Allred, Hilldale

$50,000 • John Gilbert, Hurricane

$32,500 • DMC, Hurricane

$35,000 • Ati Construction Inc., Hurricane

$14,000 • Paria Mining, Kane County

$34,348.91 • Transfers from Bank of America account, St. George

$56,698.49 • Web transportation and equipment, St. George

$130,125 • Plumsen Supply Inc., St. George

Source: Texas Attorney General affidavit