FLDS seek to stop sale of temple site
Fundamentalist LDS faithful sang about it in a hymn.
The temple long expected Shall stand on Berry Knoll,
By willing hearts erected, Who love Jehovah’s will.
A swath of farmland on the Utah-Arizona border has become the subject of the latest legal war involving the polygamous sect. FLDS members Willie Jessop, Dan Johnson and Merlin Jessop are seeking to halt plans by the court-appointed special fiduciary of the United Effort Plan Trust to sell Berry Knoll.
“The Special Fiduciary seeks this court’s permission to sell 711 acres of agricultural property, including a sacred and consecrated temple site,” FLDS attorney Jim Bradshaw wrote in papers filed Friday in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.
The people who live on UEP land now controlled by the courts believe that Bruce Wisan, the special fiduciary, intends to finance a “sociological and psychological war” against them by selling their own property, Bradshaw claims, to members of a breakaway sect in Centennial Park, Ariz.
The fiduciary and his attorneys have disputed many of the claims. Contacted by the Deseret News on Friday, Wisan’s attorney Jeffrey L. Shields said they would respond at a court hearing to be scheduled next month in St. George.
The courts took control of the UEP Trust in 2005, amid allegations that FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and other church officials had fleeced it. A judge appointed Wisan to manage the UEP, which has an estimated $110 million value in homes and property in Colorado City, Ariz., Hilldale, Utah and Canada.
For years, the FLDS were silent — refusing to deal with the fiduciary, respond to trust reforms or pay taxes. In the aftermath of the raid on the faith’s ranch in Texas, members have started responding in court.
“While Texas has got our children, Wisan’s trying to taking our property,” Willie Jessop said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. Court documents state he has cattle and sheep grazing on Berry Knoll.
If a proposed sale of Berry Knoll Farm is allowed to proceed, it will divest the FLDS Church of one of its most sacred sites and place it in the hands of a rival religious group, three sect members allege.
In a document filed Friday, Willie Jessop, Dan Johnson and Merlin Jessop asked a 3rd District Court judge to stop the sale and find other ways to resolve disputes related to the United Effort Plan Trust short of selling its assets.
Judge Denise Lindberg has set a hearing on the matter for Nov. 14 in St. George.
Bruce R. Wisan, the fiduciary overseeing the trust, is negotiating to sell the 711-acre farm to Kenneth Knudson, a real estate developer and member of Centennial Park, a separate polygamous community.
Knudson has proposed a housing development there.
Wisan hadn’t seen the filing but said Friday, “We believe we have a very good case and don’t think any of the allegations in the motion are true.”
Jeff Shields, Wisan’s attorney, told Lindberg earlier this month the sale is needed to resolve the trust’s cash crunch. Billings through April 2008 have totaled about $3 million, though $1 million remains unpaid because the trust has no money, sect members allege.
Their filing says the sale is contrary to trust beneficiaries’ interests and inappropriate given the reasons the trust was placed under court oversight.
“The court’s intervention was expressly premised upon an allegation that there was an emergency need to protect the trust from a ‘pattern of liquidation of trust real property at below market value,’ ” their filing states. In a June 2005 ruling, Lindberg also found that the trust would be ”irreparably harmed by the continued liquidation and transfer of its property.”
As for Berry Knoll, Joseph W. Musser, an early leader in the fundamentalist Mormon movement, prophesied in 1934 it would some day be a temple site. The filing includes diary and book excerpts as well as church hymns that refer to Berry Knoll’s sacred and historical significance.
It has been used as farm and grazing land.
The FLDS members claim Wisan never advertised the property for sale and instead worked an “inside deal” with Knudson, whose brother Joseph is on the priesthood council of The Work, based in Centennial Park. Members of The Work also consider the site “holy ground,” they allege.
“The mere act of vesting ownership and control of the Berry Knoll temple site to members of The Work is an act of religious desecration,” the filing states, because the two groups have competing claims to priesthood succession. “The audacious ‘in your face’ nature of this proposed sale is not lost on the FLDS people.”
The filing also notes Wisan plans to sell or is investigating claims on other “critical and sacred properties,” including the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.