Judge may decide fate of polygamist group’s holdings today
SALT LAKE CITY – Its leader has been indicted on charges of sex crimes, and financial documents in its school system have been seized in a search for criminal activity.
But the biggest blow yet to the polygamist sect that controls the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, could come today when a Utah judge is expected to decide whether the sect leaders who control the purse strings to a more than $100 million trust will retain their positions as trustees.
Tim Bodily, an assistant Utah attorney general, said that if none of the leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, including indicted leader and trustee Warren Jeffs, shows up in court this morning to challenge a preliminary injunction that froze trust funds, it will become a permanent injunction.
That would mean that independent trustees would then take over what is expected to be an exhaustive task of trying to figure out what to do with the money in the United Effort Plan, a trust with utopian, socialistic ideals based on communal sharing in 19th-century Mormon settlements in Utah and Arizona.
The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued the practice of polygamy in the late 1800s as a condition of Utah being accepted as a state.
But polygamy has flourished for nearly a century in the remote Arizona-Utah boundary area north of the Grand Canyon, and an estimated 6,000 multiple-marriage practitioners live in Colorado City and Hildale.
Shem Fischer of Salt Lake City, a Colorado City native and former manager of a wood-manufacturing plant nearby, said the trust owns about 700 homes, 35 businesses and other land both in and outside that area.
He estimates trust holdings at about $150 million.
Joseph Allread, Colorado City’s town clerk and administrator, said he could not discuss trust or church affairs.
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented church matters, resigned earlier this year. The sect has been unrepresented at three earlier court hearings regarding the trust.
“I’d like to see independent trustees bridge the gap from socialism to mainstream, free America in the two towns,” Fischer said. “With a lot of work, this could be a regular American town in 10 to 15 years.”
But Fischer fears that nearly a third of the trust’s holdings already have been diverted by church leaders to properties in Texas and Colorado and, possibly, to other financial interests in Nevada, Wyoming and Mexico.
Even with a temporary restraining order in place, which barred movement of trust assets, a cabin-manufacturing plant on trust land was disassembled within 24 hours last month and moved to another location, Fischer and other Colorado City observers said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Jeffs’ closest followers are believed to have moved to a nearly 2,000-acre spread in western Texas, near the town of Eldorado, where a four-story temple to the faith is being constructed.
An additional 500 to 1,000 church members also are believed to have left for other church holdings, including one enclave near Mancos, Colo.
About 6,000 church members have remained behind in Colorado City and Hildale, where most live in dormitory-size homes owned by the church trust.
The most vexing problem is what to do regarding those people, said Ben Bistline, a former Colorado City resident and town historian who now lives in the nearby community of Cane Beds.
“They could go a couple different paths here,” Bistline said. “They could continue indefinitely with new trustees if they can find anyone willing to put up with that headache over time, or they could dissolve it and divide it among beneficiaries already in place. But whatever happens, that trust has been a magnet for lawsuits and will continue to be so over time.”
Bistline speaks from experience. He was a dissident who broke from church ranks in the 1980s and then fought a 12-year court battle to protect the equity he had accrued in his church-owned home.
Another fear, Bistline and Fischer said, is that other rival polygamist sects would manage to take control of the trust and Colorado City and Hildale religious life over time.
Former trustee Warren Blackmore, who formed a splinter polygamist group in British Columbia, appeared at a court hearing about the status of the trust last week, and many members of the Barlow family, which has enjoyed great power in the towns’ recent past before being castigated by Jeffs, also seem poised for a return.
“Regardless, we’re going to see more and more people come forward with lack of human rights and incest allegations,” Fischer said.
“There are going to be a lot of complications,” he said. “You can’t turn them loose with free enterprise and say, ‘Here it is.’ There’s going to be a need for a lot of education and steering in the proper direction.”