A new president has been called to lead a controversial polygamous sect, replacing jailed leader Warren S. Jeffs in that post.
Wendell Nielsen, 69, is now president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and of the corporate entity that handles the faith’s business dealings, according to a document filed with the state of Utah.
Nielsen signed the document amending the corporation’s status on January 9. It was filed with the Utah Division of Corporations four days later.
It is unclear what status Jeffs now holds. It is likely he remains the sect’s prophet, a position the FLDS consider appointed by God.
“As far as whom the members look to for their spiritual leadership, that’s a decision most people make on an individual basis,” said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents FLDS members.
But, “As far as who has the legal authority to act on behalf of the church, there’s never been any question that the people I’m dealing with have that authority and this filing helps to clarify that,” Parker said.
He said that group includes Nielsen, Willie Jessop and others.
Jessop, who acts as the FLDS spokesman, said Nielsen “has been running the day to day affairs of the church for quite some time.”
The church has communities in Hildale; Colorado City, Ariz.; Bountiful, Canada; Eldorado, Texas; and in numerous other states.
Regarding Jeffs, Jessop said he would “rather not comment on who the prophet is out of fear there’d be retaliation by the government.”
“It would be nice if the government respected people’s rights to believe how, where and what they may,” he said.
The corporate filing was made shortly after Bruce R. Wisan, a fiduciary overseeing the sect’s $110 million property trust, filed a court document questioning who had authority to represent the FLDS in negotiations aimed at settling disputes over the trust. Wisan asked for a court order to depose Jeffs because he was still listed on corporate documents.
Jeffs issued a press release Dec. 4, 2007, saying he was resigning as president of the FLDS church’s corporate entity. He made the announcement shortly after receiving two five-to-life prison sentences on rape as an accomplice charges.
At the time, the move was described as necessary to allow someone else to handle the church’s business. But the sect did not file until last month any formal document noting who stepped into that void.
Nielsen was first counselor to Jeffs, as well as to his father Rulon T. Jeffs, who was the faith’s president until his death in September 2002.
He started Western Precision, a high-tech machining company now located in Nevada, and numerous other businesses. Nielsen, said to have 21 wives, currently lives at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Texas authorities have charged him with three counts of bigamy based on evidence found at the ranch during a 2008 investigation. The charges are related to Nielsen’s spiritual marriages to three women, all of whom were in their 60s at the time of the 2005 ceremonies. Among the FLDS, such marriages allow women to be under the care and protection of men considered to be faithful priesthood holders.
Nielsen also allegedly witnessed other marriages that are the subject of criminal charges in Texas, including at least one involving one of his underage daughters.
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The Salt Lake Tribune’s full FLDS coverage, including a special report on polygamy