Prosecutors from Utah and Canada are exploring whether treaties are in place that would allow officials to take over property owned by a Utah-based polygamist church trust.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Wally Oppal, his counterpart in British Columbia, Canada, agreed to pursue that possibility Thursday during a meeting in Vancouver in which they shared information on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The FLDS church, based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., has an outpost in Bountiful, located in southwest British Columbia. Bountiful also is home to polygamists who no longer belong to the FLDS faith.
A judge in May placed control of the FLDS church’s United Effort Plan Trust, which holds nearly all property in the two Arizona Strip towns, in the hands of a special fiduciary as requested by authorities in Utah and Arizona.
Authorities said the FLDS church had failed to protect the property, valued at about $91.5 million, against various lawsuits and that people living in trust-owned homes might lose them to pay any legal settlements.
Oppal said Thursday evening that he and Shurtleff are investigating whether existing treaties between the U.S. and Canada allow a civil judgment in Utah to be applied in British Columbia.
If so, that would allow authorities in British Columbia to freeze the FLDS church’s property holdings in Bountiful, estimated at $3.9 million, and hold it for Utah, Oppal said. About 1,000 people live in the area, half of whom are FLDS members.
“If there is not one, we could seek a tentative protocol,” Oppal said, but added that he assumes such an agreement is already in place.
Oppal said he and Shurtleff also exchanged other information and investigative findings about the FLDS church and its practices. Both have emphasized they want to protect women and children from abuse and exploitation.
“It went very well,” Oppal said. “We had a fruitful and positive meeting.”
But two Utah women who act as advocates for polygamists in Utah got a less receptive welcome in Canada.
Mary Batchelor and Anne Wilde of Principle Voices traveled to Vancouver, hoping to attend a separate meeting between Shurtleff and a women’s group that wants authorities in British Columbia to crack down on polygamy. Principle Voices has worked with Shurtleff’s office in developing resources for and about polygamists in Utah.
But they were barred from the session. So were Bountiful residents Ruth Lane and Leah Barlow, plural wives of Winston Blackmore, who was exiled from the FLDS church in 2002.
The four met afterwards with the group in what Batchelor described as a somewhat hostile encounter.
Still, they were able to share information about Utah’s success reaching out to polygamist communities – with the exception of the FLDS.
“We made meaningful contacts and gave information to people there to help them see a little different perspective,” Batchelor said in a telephone interview.