The self-proclaimed prophet of the nation’s largest polygamous community could lose his greatest powers under a motion filed in a Salt Lake City court.
The motion seeks to remove Warren Jeffs as head of United Effort Plan, a private trust that controls virtually all land, housing and financial assets in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
The move is the latest and potentially most significant crackdown against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect, which, unlike the mainstream Mormon religion, practices polygamy.
“What we’ve really done is start a process, but it’s a big thing,” said Roger Hoole, the attorney who filed the motion late Thursday in Utah’s 3rd District Court. Hoole represents seven defendants from a previous lawsuit against the sect.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and his counterpart in Utah, Mark Shurtleff, are working closely with Hoole.
Shurtleff’s office filed papers in support of Hoole’s motion this week. Goddard said his office planned to do the same early next week.
“The trust has been this apparently impenetrable insulation around the FLDS,” Goddard said. “We have an opportunity now to get the court to do the right thing.”
Because the trust owns virtually all land and housing, Jeffs decides who lives in Colorado City and Hildale. He uses that power as one way to control his estimated 6,000 to 10,000 followers.
In the past year, Jeffs has excommunicated dozens of the sect’s highest-ranking officials, including several longtime top lieutenants. He has ordered them out of their homes, banished them from the community and “re-assigned” their multiple wives to other men.
Jeffs hasn’t been seen in public since summer when he was named in two lawsuits filed in Salt Lake City, accusing him of sexually abusing his underage nephew, covering up serial sexual molestations by fellow leaders and conspiring to ruin the lives of dozens of young men he perceived as threats to marry brides he wanted to give to loyal followers.
Three months after the lawsuits were filed, one of Jeffs’ aides purchased 1,691 acres of land in a sparsely populated part of west Texas. Construction began on a giant compound that now includes at least three 28,000-square-foot dormitory-style buildings, a sprawling barn capable of housing scores of animals, a half-dozen support structures and a nearly completed three-story temple with four ornate towers.
Authorities believe Jeffs is living on the compound near Eldorado, Texas, but they have been unable to serve him with the complaints from the two lawsuits.
Given the enormous scale of construction, authorities have speculated Jeffs intends to move his most-devoted followers to Texas. If that happens, and he remains in control of the UEP trust, Jeffs would have power to sell off the sect’s assets in Colorado City and Hildale.
Goddard said that possibility alarmed him and was just part of what prompted him to order his staff to join Utah in supporting Hoole’s motion.
“One of my concerns has always been that with the abdication of leadership and the move to Texas, (the sect leaders) leave a fairly substantial Arizona population high and dry without any way of subsistence,” Goddard said.
No hearing has been set on the motion to remove Jeffs and appoint new trustees, but merely filing the motion put Jeffs in a difficult situation.
He or his attorneys almost certainly would have to show up to argue his side of the case to stand any chance of remaining in charge of the trust. If that happened, Jeffs and his fellow defendants would be served the personal summonses they have avoided in the sex-abuse and conspiracy lawsuits.
“They will have some tough questions to answer if they show up,” Hoole said.
Rod Parker, Jeffs’ personal lawyer who also represented the FLDS, severed his ties to the prophet and the sect in the fall after the two lawsuits were filed. Hoole argued in his motion that the loss of legal representation was further evidence the UEP trust is in disarray and should be restructured.
Besides the pending lawsuits and the motion to remove him as head of the trust, Jeffs could face criminal charges. Neither Goddard nor Shurtleff would discuss that possibility, but investigators for both of their offices have spent more than a year looking into a wide range of allegations ranging from financial irregularities to the sexual molestations raised in the civil cases.