The newest lawsuit against Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Warren Jeffs, in which he is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a girl as young as 8 in a ritualistic fashion, lists 26 defendants.
Only one of them is sure to have money — the United Effort Plan (UEP). It’s the land trust that Jeffs used to control, but which the state of Utah seized in 2005. It has since been reorganized under the eye of a state judge and has been working to provide housing and other benefits to residents in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek.
The UEP may still have assets of $100 million.
Margaret Cooke assumes that’s the only reason the UEP is being sued.
“It just seems like it is a ploy to get money because nobody else has any,” said Cooke, a former member of the UEP board of trustees.
In interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune, former FLDS members recoiled at the latest sex abuse allegations against Jeffs. They also voiced bewilderment at why the land trust that has been trying to help those who consider themselves Jeffs’ victims, of one kind or another, is being asked to pay.
As Josie McDonald, 38, who was raised in Short Creek and left the polygamous sect 13 years ago, put it, the UEP is “paying for Warren’s mistakes, essentially, and not him.”
McDonald emphasized that she is glad the plaintiff, identified as a now-21-year-old R.H. in court documents, came forward, and she wants R.H. to receive compensation if her claims are proved. But McDonald doesn’t want the UEP to have to spend money that could go to help Short Creek.
“I only hope that if [the plaintiff’s] lawyer does go after the UEP, that it doesn’t rock their foundation to the point where they’re not taking care of the people in the community like they’re trying their best to do,” McDonald added.
R.H. alleges in the lawsuit that a bag was placed over her head and she was taken to various locations so Jeffs and other men could sexually assault her beginning at age 8. She asserts she later was forced to watch Jeffs assault other girls.
The lawsuit, filed recently in 3rd District Court, comes as the UEP is trying to give away or sell, at low cost, homes in Hildale and Colorado City. The UEP recently reached a solution with current FLDS members to allow them to remain in trust-owned homes. That would likely mean keeping those homes in the trust portfolio.
Some UEP board members also have discussed long-term plans to establish economic development zones in Short Creek and endowed college scholarships.
Lance Milne, one of the attorneys for R.H., last week said the UEP was included as a defendant because Jeffs controlled it when he abused her.
As for whether it’s fair to sue an entity that’s now operated by people who had no role in the alleged abuses, Milne returned to R.H., saying the UEP Trust cannot rewrite the past. It’s unfair what happened to R.H., Milne said, and the law says the UEP is not absolved from liability for the actions of its former trustees.
“In bringing this lawsuit,” Milne said, “R.H. hopes this gives strength to others who are abused or have been abused by people in the FLDS community, and this abuse that was done in the name of religion stops. That’s what she’s after.”
Jeff Barlow, executive director of the UEP, declined to comment. The lawsuit was filed Dec. 27 in state court in Salt Lake City. None of the defendants has answered the suit yet.
The UEP was created in 1942, when residents of Short Creek donated land and homes to a communal trust. The residents were polygamists and so-called fundamentalist Mormons who wanted to practice a communal form of living. Lands in British Columbia were later donated to the UEP.
The UEP was a separate legal entity from the FLDS, which was incorporated in 1991. However, FLDS leaders operated the trust and decided who got to live in which homes and who got to use the commercial and agricultural property. There were long-standing complaints that FLDS leaders would evict boys, men and sometimes whole families from their homes or the entire community when they fell out of favor.
Some boys and young men, who came to be known as “The Lost Boys,” sued Jeffs and the trust over their evictions, Jeffs failed to answer the lawsuit. In 2005, Utah seized the UEP, in part, because of Jeffs’ failure to answer that lawsuit. A default judgment could have put people at risk of losing their homes.
In 2007, the UEP gave six plaintiffs in the Lost Boys case 21.5 acres of property in Hildale and set up a $250,000 fund to help pay for their educations and provide other assistance.
Also in 2007, Elissa Wall, whom Jeffs arranged to be married at age 14 to her 19-year-old cousin, sued the UEP in state court. The lawsuit, which Wall filed under the pseudonym “MJ” before publicly identifying herself, dragged on for nine years. Along the way, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the UEP could be held liable for Jeffs’ conduct.
While the Wall lawsuit was proceeding, the judge overseeing the UEP installed a board of trustees made up mostly of former FLDS members to oversee the trust and distribute property to people who built homes in Short Creek or donated other assets or efforts. That board agreed to settle Wall’s lawsuit in 2016 by giving her $2.75 million in a mix of cash and property. Wall has said she plans to use some of the cash and land to boost Short Creek’s economy.
Wall is not a party in the latest lawsuit, though her lawyers are the same ones representing R.H. Those attorneys filed a 16-page complaint that spends a lot of words explaining the UEP’s role in the alleged abuse and why it should be a defendant.
The acronym “UEP” appears 71 times in the body of the complaint. The lawyers wrote “FLDS” 54 times. The word “Jeffs” was written 96 times.
Three Jeffs brothers — Warren, Lyle and Seth — are listed as defendants. The other defendants are another former FLDS bishop named Wendell Nielsen, Jeffs’ church itself and 20 defendants listed as Does. The plaintiff’s lawyers hope to be able to identify the Does later.
Wall and others have won judgments against the Jeffs family and the FLDS in the past. Collecting has been another matter. Plaintiffs have had to go to court again to seize property belonging to the Jeffses or their church.
Rachel Jeffs, one of Warren Jeffs’ daughters, said pursuing her father and uncles in court — much less the UEP — only hurts others. If damages are awarded, the Jeffs brothers will make their followers pay, she said, either through the loss of church assets or with cash they will demand from the faithful.
“And, of course, the people go without,” she said.
Rachel Jeffs recently published a book discussing how her father molested her as a child. Yet she said she has doubts about the new allegations against him.
She was in the sect during the years covered by the lawsuit and says her father, uncles and Nielsen weren’t living near one another then. Also, Warren Jeffs kept his sexual abuses hidden from others, she said, and never would have let other men participate.
“He’s not the kind to let other men know what kind of sexual indulgences he’s participating in,” Rachel Jeffs said.
Private detective Sam Brower, who worked as an investigator on Wall’s lawsuit and wrote the book “Prophet’s Prey” about investigating the FLDS, said Wall’s lawsuit was necessary to make law enforcement and politicians aware of what Jeffs had been doing and how he used the UEP as leverage over his followers. Wall was adamant she didn’t want anyone to lose homes because of her lawsuit, Brower said.
The R.H. lawsuit is different, Brower said.
“The fact that this lawsuit focuses on the trust and there’s only homes left in the trust is unacceptable,” Brower said.
Cooke said the UEP board agreed to settle the Wall lawsuit to give both the trust and Wall a resolution. The board also felt Wall deserved compensation partly as a reward for helping to convict Warren Jeffs of rape as an accomplice in 2007, Cooke said.
But more payouts to abuse victims would mean the UEP has to sell homes instead of giving them to people who need them, Cooke said. Cooke also wondered aloud about the equity of a few FLDS abuse victims receiving big payouts, but not others who suffered while in the sect.
Cooke points to her own circumstances. At age 16, she was arranged to marry a 22-year-old man. When Wall wrote a book about her time in the FLDS, Cooke said, it was “word for word” the abuses she suffered, too.
Rather than sue, Cooke said, she has tried to change her community.
“We’ve all been damaged ever since we were little,” Cooke said. “Maybe somebody didn’t take us and do everything they did to [R.H.], but we’ve all been damaged.”
Wall testified before a St. George jury in 2007, when it convicted Jeffs of rape as an accomplice. The Utah Supreme Court later overturned the conviction, but, in 2011, a Texas jury convicted him of crimes related to sexually abusing two girls he married underage. He is serving life in prison plus 20 years.