‘It’s in the Lord’s hands’ — FLDS balk as judge hands former polygamous land trust back to those on the Utah-Arizona line

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Roger Hoole, an attorney who represents former members of the FLDS church, listens during a UEP hearing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

A state judge said Tuesday he will end his oversight of the land trust once controlled by a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona line, ending a 14-year chapter that helped turn two secluded religious outposts into fledgling secular communities.

The plan by 3rd District Judge Richard McKelvie, announced during a hearing in Salt Lake City, would end the state’s involvement in what’s called the United Effort Plan, or UEP.

At the end of a one-hour hearing, McKelvie asked a lawyer for the UEP to draft an order ending the probate case. As soon as the judge signs it, the board — which has been making day-to-day decisions about who receives homes and property in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. — will be autonomous.

The UEP once owned most of the homes in those towns, collectively known as Short Creek. The state seized the trust in 2005. That involvement loosened the grip Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Warren Jeffs had on his followers.

About two dozen of those followers — the women and girls clad in prairie dresses, the men and boys in long-sleeved, button-up shirts — gathered in McKelvie’s courtroom to ask him not to sever his oversight. After the hearing, the FLDS members seemed resigned to the fact they never again will benefit from the trust once established to help them practice their brand of so-called Mormon fundamentalism.

Or at least they won’t benefit through any earthly means.

“It’s in the Lord’s hands,” said Lori Barlow, one of the FLDS members. “It’s his property, and he will do what he wants with it.”

(Tribune file photo) "UEP" sign on a home in the polygamist community of Hildale.

Former sect members asked McKelvie to keep the case, too. They all expressed concern and mistrust of the board, which has been deciding who receives what homes from the UEP.

“There is a perception,” attorney Roger Hoole told McKelvie, “a widespread perception, that there is a problem with the management and favoritism.”

Hoole, who represents seven of those former members, submitted a petition Tuesday whose signers were redacted. The petition called for a number of steps aimed at transparency, including the release of more data than the UEP has been providing about the homes and properties that have been given away.

Hoole said the signers’ names were redacted because they fear retaliation by the trust’s board members. He also asked McKelvie to hold quarterly hearings on UEP happenings.

The judge bristled at all arguments of him keeping oversight of the UEP, including the idea that he was needed to give an appeal option for anyone dissatisfied with the board.

“I don’t want to be the de facto mayor of Short Creek,” McKelvie told lawyers at one point. “I also don’t want to be the municipal judge.”

The first version of the UEP was established in 1942 by polygamists living in what’s now Short Creek. They donated their homes and lands to the trust so they could practice another tenet of fundamental Mormonism known as the Law of Consecration. The homes — many of which were built for a man, his multiple wives and dozens of children — and lands were supposed to belong to God rather than any one person.

The UEP was controlled by FLDS members. They decided who got to live in each home or use properties for agriculture or business. In the early 2000s, Jeffs was accused of using his authority within the UEP to evict people from homes and withdrawing trust assets — then thought to be about $110 million — to facilitate his plural marriages to underage girls.

After Utah seized the trust in 2005, state courts began a slow process of changing its terms and ensuring they were followed. The reformed UEP is supposed to be more egalitarian and religiously neutral in how it gives properties to the original donors and their heirs. Those beneficiaries can often receive properties at a price of pennies on the dollar.

The UEP still has assets of $104 million, according to a report filed with McKelvie earlier this month. Besides giving away properties, the board has discussed using cash or selling assets to support a health clinic in Colorado City and to establish college scholarships for trust beneficiaries.

Those who have stayed loyal to Jeffs have typically refused to participate in the process, contending the properties belong to God and only the Almighty or Jeffs has authority to divvy them. To complicate matters, UEP board members have often been former FLDS members, who are considered apostates by Jeffs’ flock.

Refusal to work with the UEP has led to FLDS members being evicted from trust properties, including the seizure of the FLDS meetinghouse. Where there once were perhaps 7,000 FLDS members in Short Creek, the number is now thought to be measured in the dozens.

The diaspora has had an influence on local politics. Hildale has no City Council members thought to be Jeffs loyalists. There are still a few on Colorado City’s Town Council, but dissidents have been organizing to run their own candidates in the next election.

The FLDS decline was raised by Lynn Kingston, an attorney representing FLDS member David Fisher. Kingston on Tuesday told McKelvie that his client built and consecrated a home on UEP land only to have that house taken away because he wouldn’t sign an agreement with the reformed trust.

“This is something he holds dear,” Kingston said, “and he cannot violate his religion.”

Kingston belongs to a different polygamous community, the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group. Members of that sect have been lending assistance to FLDS members.

Zach Shields, an attorney for the UEP, supported McKelvie’s plan. Shields said the trust has made public announcements every time it planned to distribute properties, and there have been no objections.

Shields took umbrage with any idea the board has acted to benefit only a few. Some dissent about who has received properties has to be expected, he said, and is no reason for the judge to keep the case.

“I believe these board members are conscientious,” he said.

JVar Dutson, a city councilman in Hildale, said the town government has been working well with the UEP board on issues such as finding homes for residents seeking them and improving the community’s water system. The UEP owns some water rights in Short Creek.

Dutson, who bought his home from the UEP, said he has no concerns about McKelvie pulling back.

“If people will just use good judgment,” Dutson said in a phone interview after the hearing, “we can keep moving forward.”

The order ending oversight of the UEP is likely to be filed within days and signed with no ceremony. Only a note on the docket will announce the occasion.

Once it’s signed, it’s unclear whether any beneficiary with a grievance over a board decision will have an appeal option. After the hearing, lawyers said such a person could sue, but it’s unclear Utah law would allow a judge to review the decisions of a trust like the UEP.

Jeffs is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in a Texas prison for crimes associated with sexually assaulting two girls he married as plural wives.