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Crowd weighs in on future of FLDS trust

Published December 1, 2012 6:21 pm

UEP • Discussing options for property, Shurtleff asks attendants to reach out to sect members.
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Colorado City, Ariz. • Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff made an impassioned plea Friday to reach a group that seems out of his grasp: Followers of imprisoned polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs.

"They have to understand, he is a convicted child rapist and he is never getting out of prison," Shurtleff said, asking a crowd of about 150 people to communicate with friends and family in the sect. "You have to please convince the people there who he is … we rely on you."

Shurtleff may not be able to communicate with members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but a Utah court does control a property trust built by Jeffs' followers that holds the houses and land where thousands of them live and work.

At a meeting in El Capitan school on Friday, Shurtleff and others discussed what to do with the FLDS trust, called the United Effort Plan.

The state appears to have won the protracted legal battle to keep control of the trust it took over in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by FLDS trustees, but officials don't want to keep it.

How to give that property back and pay the millions of dollars in debt, though, is a complicated issue. Four options were discussed at the meeting:

• Establish a board that would govern the trust.

• Dissolve the trust and distribute its assets among those FLDS who have contributed to it over the decades.

• Dissolve the trust, liquidate the assets and put the proceeds up for auction among the people who contributed to it.

• Some combination of the three options or something different.

"We know we have to resolve these issues that have been locked up so long in the courts," Shurtleff said. "Now it's time to move on."

Moving on means sorting out perhaps thousands of competing needs and wants from people who contributed to the approximately $114 million trust since its creation in the 1940s. It also means navigating the deep divisions in the community created in recent years.

Trust administrator Bruce Wisan said Friday he wants to give deeds to homes back to the people who live on the trust with the help of a board of trustees — an option preferred by a majority of the people who attended the meeting.

Wisan acknowledged that wouldn't be easy.

"There is probably more demand than there is housing, and there will probably be some people that don't end up with what they want," he said. Deeds to homes would likely cost about $5,000 each to pay for subdividing the property and other expenses.

Who, for example, should get a home built by a man who was excommunicated from the FLDS church but left his family behind? That was the written question posed by one anonymous member of the crowd. The man built the home, but the family — still faithful to Jeffs and likely no longer speaking to the husband and father they consider an apostate — needs it.

"There are some very unique things here," said Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. More than $6 million in debt owed to Wisan and his attorneys racked up during the four-year battle for control of the trust will also have to be paid from trust assets — likely the sale of commercial properties.

Any final decision on the future of the trust will have to be made by 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, who oversees the case.

Friday's crowd came from the nearby polygamous community of Centennial Park, Ariz., and from the sect's home base of Colorado City, Ariz. The meeting drew Winston Blackmore, the former bishop of the FLDS group in Bountiful, British Columbia, who has since broken ties with Jeffs. The Canadian property is included in the UEP trust.

"Many of us have spent our whole lives building up the UEP," Blackmore said before the meeting. "We want to see what's happening just like everyone else."

No one appeared to represent the thousands still faithful to Jeffs, who is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two girls he took as polygamous wives. He still controls the sect from prison, however, and is said to have warned people against coming to the meeting.

Shurtleff set up the meeting to get input from the community on the future of the trust after a federal appeals court earlier this month upheld a Utah Supreme Court ruling that the sect waited too long to challenge the state takeover.

Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this story.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.comTwitter: @lwhitehurstThe Polygamy Blog: http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/polgblog