In the year since Bruce Wisan was appointed to oversee the assets of the polygamist sect controlled by Warren Jeffs, he has made significant progress in dragging the huge 19th-century-style religious sect into the 21st century.
Already, 41 people have paid their property taxes. Only two people haven’t responded to the 43 delinquent tax notices that have been sent out, and they are among Jeffs’ most influential supporters. The two have been served with eviction notices.
Wisan has begun to break down into individual parcels the land that had long been held in trust by the United Effort Plan and controlled as a communal fiefdom by leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
And he says he has a commitment from a high-tech company to set up shop in the twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
“You can’t say enough about how wise his handling of the UEP assets has been and how he has taken charge in his long-range view of privatizing what has been a collective,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.
Meanwhile, Jeffs remains on the FBI’s most-wanted list on charges of sexual misconduct for marrying underage girls to much older men. Goddard said he believes authorities are closing in on the leader of the FLDS. The jury selection for the trial of the first of eight men to be charged with sexual misconduct for taking young brides is scheduled to begin this week.
The significance of Wisan’s work, however, may trump any of those developments.
Wisan was appointed by the court as special fiduciary to oversee the trust’s assets, which he said includes an estimated $120 million. A Utah judge removed FLDS leaders from financial control of the trust last summer.
The communal trust is based on the frontier Mormon concept of a united order, in which workers donate their labor to a common fund to benefit all living in the community. The FLDS has no connection with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which banned polygamy as a condition of Utah being admitted as a state in the late 1800s.
Wisan is breaking up the community and working to put an individual face on the more than 800 homes in the two cities. If residents don’t pony up their property taxes, he has vowed to evict devotees of Jeffs and replace them with former members of the sect, including young men forced out by older FLDS leaders in the competition for multiple wives.
Eviction notices were sent out last month to two of Jeffs’ most influential supporters, former UEP trustee James Zitting and Colorado City Town Councilman William Shapley.
“I think, given their prominence, they are testing me to see how far we will go toward removing people from the houses,” Wisan said. “It’s very obvious that Warren has given the order for his followers to pay property taxes.”
Wisan said that surveys are ongoing in Hildale and will soon begin in Colorado City that will break down the UEP land holdings into individual housing lots for property-tax purposes by this time next year.
Wisan said that one way the FLDS has been able to maintain its hold on its followers has been to list dozens of homes on a minimum of 40-acre lots on county records in Arizona and Utah, and shuffling living arrangements as it saw fit.
While no ruling has been made in Utah probate court about the ultimate reorganization of the UEP, Wisan has submitted lengthy documents backing a “spendthrift” trust for what are now the loyal followers of Jeffs who are expected to become individual property owners.
“That allows the trustee to dole out money and the transfer of title to the property over time until they can learn to handle it on their own,” Wisan said.
Carolyn Jessop of Salt Lake City, a former polygamist wife who is expected to be a trustee for the UEP when a new board is appointed, said that kind of trust is necessary given the unique conditions.
“It would be a best-case scenario to just give everyone a deed to their house and privatize as quickly as possible,” she said. “But we know many of them are so brainwashed that they would turn around and sell the homes and give the money to Warren and leave a bunch of kids homeless. We’re going to have to go about this gradually.”
Wisan said he is intent on infusing new blood into the community.
He said that the new computer company, a publicly traded company that he refused to identify, is expected to sign a contract and break ground soon.
Wisan also said he wouldn’t hesitate to allow some of the “Lost Boys,” young men run out of the community by older polygamist males, to receive title to houses that have delinquent taxes.
But he wants to make sure he introduces change slowly. He doesn’t want to alienate those living in the twin cities.
“I’ve already had a number of the ex-FLDS members come to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re in charge. We want to use the baptismal fountain and other things in the church,’ but I’m not going to allow things like that to happen,” Wisan said.
For now, Wisan said the challenge is keeping the UEP solvent economically and protecting it against a battery of civil lawsuits filed by the “Lost Boys,” an unidentified former polygamist wife who fled the community and a nephew of Jeffs who claimed that the sect leader sexually molested him.
According to a lawsuit filed by Wisan on behalf of the trust against the FLDS church, the trust lost an estimated $6 million when more than 1,300 acres of land west of Colorado City was sold in 2004 and 3 acres of land on which Western Precision, a machine manufacturer, was sold to a Utah corporation controlled by the FLDS.
The trust also has suffered other large economic losses, Wisan said. When trust leaders were stripped of control, they began removing items of value: A log-cabin plant was disassembled and moved last year along with a grain elevator, the machinery in a potato processing plant, and a number of other modular buildings and irrigation equipment.
Meanwhile, the sect’s assets continue to grow exponentially near Eldorado, Texas, where a huge temple to the faith has been constructed, and other sect properties in Colorado and South Dakota.
“The business climate of the FLDS has really suffered lately in the Colorado City area. Two cement operations have folded along with an electric company they owned and the grain elevator, plus it looks like their dairy is going to shut down also,” Wisan said.
That’s because the area, which had an estimated population of about 8,000 before the Texas property was purchased in 2003, is being depopulated rapidly.
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