Polygamous sect on Utah-Arizona line evicted from meetinghouse

The polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has surrendered the last, visible sign of its faith in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz.

The church organization was evicted from the Leroy S. Johnson Meetinghouse on Thursday, called the “LSJ” by locals. The land trust that owns the building served eviction notices days earlier and changed the locks Thursday.

The land trust is called the United Effort Plan. It’s executive director, Jeff Barlow, said the FLDS had effectively abandoned the meetinghouse. The utilities have been off for at least a month. There was no one in the building to remove when the locksmith arrived Thursday.

“The trustees," Barlow said in a phone interview Friday, “in looking at the whole situation, felt it was best at this time to take possession and to work toward finding a way to use the building to benefit the entire community.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Students riding a float representing Snow Canyon High School launch a water fight during the Colorado City and Hildale Fourth of July Parade in Hildale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ, Saturday July 2, 2016. At rear behind a large wall is the Leroy S. Johnson meetinghouse, used by the Warren Jeffs led FLDS Church.

The UEP trustees meet again in January and will discuss what to do with the meetinghouse, which sits in Colorado City. Barlow said one possibility is turning the LSJ into a civic center.

One FLDS member said Friday the church had stopped holding regular worship services in the meetinghouse because so many of the faith’s leaders are in prison or have recently been convicted of crimes and had left the community. Rank-and-file members didn’t feel comfortable leading services in the LSJ.

“It’s a principle of our religion that Heavenly Father assign a head," said the member, who did not want to be identified because the person had not been authorized by leadership to speak on the subject.

FLDS President Warren Jeffs is serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years for crimes related to sexually abusing girls he married as spiritual wives. One of his brothers, Lyle Jeffs, had been running day-to-day operations of the FLDS. Then in 2016, Lyle Jeffs was among the FLDS men and women arrested in what prosecutors called a scheme to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still called food stamps by many.

Lyle Jeffs is serving 57 months in federal prison.

The FLDS once controlled the UEP itself. But Utah seized the UEP in 2005 over concerns Warren Jeffs was mismanaging it and using it to finance his crimes. In recent years, it has been selling homes and property it held — usually at significant discounts — to former sect members who donated assets, time or talents to the trust. Other trust properties have been donated or made into community property.

UEP trustees have for years expressed concern that the FLDS were not using the meetinghouse for its intended purpose. The LSJ’s 1988 deed says it is both a house of worship and a community gathering place, yet the FLDS had refused to let nonmembers inside even for family funerals. FLDS members were also unwilling to discuss the situation with the land trust or answer its notices.

There was brinkmanship at the LSJ on Oct. 25, 2017. UEP staffers, after having gone through the legal eviction process, went with sheriff’s deputies to take possession of the building. Then FLDS members arrived and struck a deal to keep and maintain the meetinghouse.

Barlow said there were some recent discussions with FLDS members about them better maintaining the meetinghouse, but the trustees opted for the eviction. One of the trustees' primary roles is to ensure UEP property is cared for.

“I don’t think they necessarily enjoy taking possession of something being used by the FLDS or anyone," Barlow said. “However, they do have a duty.”

Former FLDS members have testified the meetinghouse is also where a church security force would monitor video cameras posted all over the two towns, collectively known as Short Creek. Lyle Jeffs was known to have offices there, too.

Barlow said Friday he hadn’t walked through the LSJ, but he has heard there were no signs of it having been stripped or vandalized.