A former high-ranking member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said Thursday he’s siding with the state of Utah in a battle to strip reclusive leader Warren Jeffs of authority over church assets.
“Something has to be done to protect the beneficiaries of the trust,” said Winston Blackmore, subpoenaed for the hearing over the United Effort Plan Trust because he was once listed as a trustee.
Blackmore has fled the southern Utah polygamous enclave and now runs a Canadian offshoot of the church near Creston, B.C.
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Jeffs is no longer defending himself or the trust in lawsuits, and the state has alleged that he’s selling off assets to keep them from being frozen. All the land in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., was at one time given to the trust and intended to benefit all of the sect’s estimated 6,000 to 10,000 members.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s office has sought to take control of the trust, arguing Jeffs has liquidated assets to church insiders at below-market value — to the detriment of lower-level members. “The whole spirit of the trust changed,” Blackmore said.
Jeffs took over the reins of the church after his father, now-deceased church President Rulon Jeffs, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1998, Blackmore said.
“From that time the whole feeling and vision of what we were doing changed as far as I’m concerned,” Blackmore said.
Blackmore is listed along with Jeffs and others — Truman Barlow, LeRoy Jeffs, William E. Jessop (aka William Timpson), and James Zitting — as the trustees. But Blackmore says he was served notice in June 2002 that he was being removed as a trustee, although the legal paperwork to complete that action were never filed.
Blackmore said he’d be back in Utah June 22, the day all six trustees must appear if they want to object to the Attorney General’s effort to replace them permanently as trustees.
The court granted a temporary restraining order against the six trustees May 27 to prevent them from selling church property. That same day, however, several buildings on trust-owned properties were disassembled and removed.
On Thursday a judge further restricted the trustees’ ability to manage the trust by converting that order into a preliminary injunction.
According to deeds presented in court by Assistant Attorney General Tim Bodily, over the past 10 months several parcels of southern Utah land owned by the trust have been sold or transferred on paper into the hands of others, including a Nevada holding company.
No monetary value has been assigned to the trust, although some estimate its value to be near $100 million.
Thursday’s order remains in place until the court rules on permanent removal of the existing trustees and names new ones. In the interim, the trust has been placed in the hands of a Salt Lake City accountant who is trying to catalogue trust holdings.
Blackmore is on the list of those who will be nominated to serve as a new trustee. He says he’s willing to take the job, “providing that the rest of the trustees all have the same goal and that’s to protect all of the people who built up the trust.”
Prosecutors said Thursday, as they have in earlier hearings, that they’ve had little success in serving most of the six trustees with notice of the June 22 hearing. Service attempts have been made in person, by mail and in published legal notices, Bodily said.
Jeffs hasn’t been seen in more than a year and is thought by some to be holed up at a new church ranch in Texas, where “it could be difficult to get him,” Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said. However, he added Jeffs may have left the ranch.
A convoy of as many as dozen vehicles left the Texas compound after news of indictment broke last Friday, and the passengers could have included Jeffs, Smith said. Blackmore says he has no idea where Jeffs is. “I’m not interested,” he said.