‘We’re all coming out of a bad spot’: Polygamous sect members convicted in Texas receive homes in Utah

As more people leave Warren Jeffs, Short Creek talks of reconciliation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune File Photo) Wendell Nielsen, new presidency of the FLDS church, attends the hearing before the Utah Supreme Court who heard a petition filed by the FLDS about the court management of the United Effort Plan Trust on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010, in Salt Lake City.

For years, George Jessop was too angry with Wendell Nielsen to speak to him.

But when Jessop was organizing the 2016 July Fourth celebration in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., he made sure to call and invite Nielsen, who was once one of the top men in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

After the invitation, Nielsen had a question for Jessop. Should Nielsen try to move back into his house in Hildale?

“He just wanted to know if people would accept him,” Jessop said.

More people continue to leave the FLDS and its imprisoned president, Warren Jeffs. When they do, questions of forgiveness are inherently wrapped in a logistical question: Who should get a home from the sect’s old land trust?

The United Effort Plan, or UEP, is a collection of homes and properties polygamists on the Utah-Arizona line donated to live in what Mormon fundamentalists call a United Order. Utah seized the trust in 2005. A board is trying to dissolve the UEP by giving away, or selling at low cost, homes in Hildale and Colorado City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The large community field in Hildale, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008.

According to court filings, the UEP board recently agreed to give deeds to two of the men convicted after the 2008 raid on the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

Nielsen, who was convicted of bigamy in 2012, received the home that property records say he built in 1999 — before he moved to Texas.

And last month, the UEP notified a Salt Lake City judge it was giving a home to Michael George Emack, who in 2010 pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting a child. The victim was a 16-year-old girl who became Emack’s plural wife in 2004. Emack was 53 at the time.

Emack served seven years in a Texas prison. He was released in January 2017 and is on the sex offender registry in Arizona, where he has been living.

Michael George Emack, 57, was one of the the five indicted members of a West Texas polygamist sect that turned themselves into authorities, Monday, July 28, 2008, to face child sexual abuse charges.(AP Photo/Texas Department of Public Safety)

Nielsen and Emack did not return messages from The Salt Lake Tribune sent to them through family. FLDS members have generally refused to accept property distributions from the UEP. Nielsen’s and Emack’s deeds appear to indicate they no longer follow Jeffs.

There has been no noticeable outcry over the homes given to Nielsen, 77, and Emack. In interviews this week, some former Jeffs followers said the UEP was right to give the men their houses even if some hard feelings remain.

“I’m still doing ​my own reconciliation with hundreds of people,” said Dowayne Barlow, another man who was part of Jeffs’ inner circle and who has since testified in various legal proceedings targeting the FLDS and its followers. “And I think everybody that’s coming out of this is ​objectively looking at this and saying, ‘Look, we’re all coming out of a bad spot — a tough spot​. We all need allowance to reset.’”

The distribution of homes in Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, has been described as a way to entice people to leave Jeffs. Yet every time someone takes that opportunity to leave the sect and move into a UEP home, it creates one more person you may have to reconcile with, Jessop explained.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune George Jessop, a former member of the FLDS church, is responsible for restarting the community's large gatherings in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., Monday, July 4, 2016.

Jessop points to Nielsen as an example. Nielsen at one point ranked just below Jeffs in the FLDS and stood by as Jeffs evicted perhaps hundreds of men he deemed unworthy.

Nielsen “knew a lot of these people personally,” Jessop said, “So he well knew they weren’t criminals in any way as far as their relationship to God.”

Jeffs would then reassign the evicted men’s wives and children to other men. Nielsen was a beneficiary. Records seized by Texas authorities showed he had 21 wives at one point.

(Courtesy of John Nielsen) Warren Jeffs and Wendell Nielsen, founder of Western Precision Inc., traveled together in 1999 to Bountiful, British Columbia, to visit FLDS members there.

Still, Jessop said, the UEP was right to give Nielsen his house back. Nielsen, who had been living in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin at the time of that 2016 conversation, needs a home where his children and grandchildren can go when they stop following Jeffs, Jessop said.

“Just because I disagree with [people like Nielsen],” Jessop said, “doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get their home back.”

People booted from the FLDS or who left on their own are dubbed “apostates” and can receive shunning or abuse from those who remain. Isaac Wyler, whom Jeffs evicted along with 20 other men during a 2004 church service, has testified about how his home and property were vandalized and how FLDS members on the local police force wouldn’t investigate. Wyler went on to work for the UEP after the state seized it.

Wyler says homes for Nielsen, Emack and other longtime Jeffs followers help everyone become good neighbors again. Some of those former FLDS members sometimes apologize for how they harassed him and thank him for treating them professionally, he said.

“One guy called me,” Wyler recalled, “and said, ‘I want to apologize for some of the stuff that I did to you.’ And I said, ‘That’s OK. Let’s let bygones be bygones.’ ”

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2014, file photo, Isaac Wyler, a former member of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, (FLDS) who now works with Utah state officials to handle evictions, stands in front of an evicted polygamous property, in Hildale, Utah. A state-run church trust that controls homes in the polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border has seized 150 homes over the past two years from sect members who refused to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees, with nearly 80 of those homes being sold to former sect members who want to live in the remote village. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

For his conviction on three counts of bigamy, Nielsen was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was paroled in 2013 and will remain on parole until 2022, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The UEP has a set of criteria to determine who receives a home. The criteria include contributions applicants made to the trust, their history with a particular home and what their need is now. Criminal history is not listed as a reason to exclude anyone, though the trust’s bylaws, which were approved by a Utah judge after a state takeover in 2005, give the board latitude to consider applicants’ circumstances. The board has made an effort to give houses to the people who paid to build or maintain them.

Applications to the UEP and the board deliberations are private. But court and property records show the UEP board in the summer of 2016 elected to give Nielsen his 13,804-square-foot home with 25 bedrooms and 21 bathrooms.

Washington County assessed the home at a value of $804,600, but Nielsen had to pay just $13,264 — the cost of the 2 acres in Hildale where the house sits.

In the case of Emack, he worked on UEP homes and properties all over Short Creek and was an “exceptional contributor” to the community, Barlow said. Emack was a licensed electrician in Utah before being sentenced to prison in Texas.

Barlow, while not apologizing for or defending Emack’s willingness to marry a teenager, also feels Emack became another Jeffs victim by believing in him.

“He was absolutely in a situation where he could be preyed upon by Warren because of his deep sense of loyalty,” Barlow said.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Dowayne Barlow and Isaac Wyler stand over Walter Steed's grave at the Isaac W Carling Memorial Park Cemetery in Colorado City, Ariz., Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015.

Barlow said he hasn’t spoken to Emack since he returned to Utah, but Emack used to write to him from prison. Emack, Barlow said, would discuss his experiences there and his faith; there was little discussion of Jeffs.

“The whole focus was on the great principles of the gospel,” Barlow said, “and loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

Emack is receiving a more modest Hildale home than Nielsen, according to court and assessor records: 7,452 square feet, 15 bedrooms and 15 bathrooms for $25,454 — about a tenth the assessed value. Like Nielsen, he lived in and maintained the home before moving to Texas.

If there is one group of people who Barlow, Jessop and Wyler believe should never receive homes from the UEP, it’s the members of Jeffs’ inner circle who have stayed loyal to him, especially his full brothers.

The Jeffses were raised in Salt Lake County, not among the UEP homes in Short Creek. When they did move to Short Creek about the time of the new millennium, they used money and labor from the faithful to build their homes and continued using those assets to finance projects in Texas, South Dakota and elsewhere, Barlow said.

Jeffs is serving a prison sentence in Texas of life plus 20 years for crimes related to sexually abusing two teenagers he married as plural wives.