HILDALE, Utah – Roger Wyler has something almost no one else here does — a deed to his home.
For more than 60 years, all the land and all the homes in the dusty, side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., belonged not to the residents, but to a trust set up by their church, a renegade Mormon splinter group that practices polygamy.
Now the trust arrangement is being dismantled under court order, and past and present members of the church are being offered the opportunity to secure title to a house and become real homeowners.
“It’s good to be home,” said Roger Wyler, 32, a disaffected former church member who recently came back to town to buy a house. “My whole life growing up, you weren’t really allowed to own property. If you owned it, it was a disobedient act.”
The beginning of the end of the trust came after Warren Jeffs, the leader and self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, went underground, first to escape lawsuits, then to avoid arrest on charges of forcing underage girls into marriages with men.
State attorneys argued that Jeffs and other leaders were selling off undeveloped land in the trust — essentially, stealing from the faithful — to support Jeffs while he was on the run. A Utah judge responded in 2005 by appointing an accountant, Bruce Wisan, to oversee the dissolution of the trust and turn Jeffs’ theocracy into a secular community.
“Things are changing big-time,” said Isaac Wyler, who is one of Roger Wyler’s 39 siblings and works for Wisan.
Nestled against jagged, red spires of rock, Hildale and Colorado City are home to about 6,000 people, most of them faithful church members. Life here is a strange confluence of the 21st century and the 19th.
Women drive minivans and talk on cell phones but wear ankle-length pioneer-style dresses and braids. Children ride horses and ATVs through town, with its combination of paved streets and tamped-down dirt roads. The men and teenage boys are often absent, traveling across the West doing the construction work that has been a cornerstone of the community’s wealth.
It is essentially a company town, except that the company is the church. The trust, consisting of real estate valued at $114 million, owns everything: the land, the homes, the parks, school buildings and, once, even a zoo. It has been that way since the 1940s, when church members formed the trust as an extension of their faith.
Just before entering into marriages arranged by the church, the men were typically awarded land on which to build a home. In return, they were expected to tithe their earnings, or turn over at least 10 percent.
Because the sect’s members do not believe in bank loans, they built their homes out of their own pockets. Nevertheless, the homes were considered trust property, and residents were subject to eviction by church leaders for disobedience — something that happened frequently under Jeffs, who exercised authority to arrange marriages and reassign partners.
Many of the houses were built to accommodate large polygamous families and are strange, haphazard-looking structures because they were often expanded piecemeal, as money became available and more wives and children joined the household. There are grand, turreted mansions of brick and stone behind 14-foot fences, and boxy, ramshackle buildings with plywood siding.
Many of those who broke with the church or were cast out have embraced Wisan’s work and are returning to live here. Those who want title to the house they built can get it by paying $5,000 plus recording fees. Others, like Wyler and his wife, are buying houses others erected but abandoned.
The Wylers bought a six-bedroom, four-bath home in August for a bargain-basement $115,000 plus some back taxes, in what was Wisan’s first sale. Forty-two more former church members are in negotiations with Wisan to secure homes.
So far, though, no church members in good standing are cooperating with him.
Some have moved away, leaving notes and keys taped to their front doors. They took with them some of the towns’ businesses, dismantling and packing up — in some cases overnight — a grain elevator, a motel, a machine shop, tiling and drywall businesses, and other enterprises.
Many other church members have stayed, but in obedience to Jeffs’ order to “answer them nothing,” they are engaging in silent, passive resistance, flinging mailed notices from Wisan on the post office floor and putting up fences and no-trespassing signs outside their homes.
The faithful refuse to speak for attribution but say the court’s intervention amounts to a hostile government takeover by authorities trying to end polygamy.
Even ex-members who are returning aren’t happy about all Wisan’s done. They are put off by his strong authority — some say he is no better than Jeffs — and have questioned why people should have to pay anything for their own homes.
“They helped build and buy and create it. The way they see it, a political agenda is at work trying to end the fundamentalist culture,” said Merril Stubbs, who left the church in 2002 when Jeffs became its leader.
Wisan’s attorney, Jeffs Shields, denied the accountant is bent on ending polygamy.
In reworking the towns’ property arrangements, “one of the things we can’t consider is whether there is more than one wife,” Shields said. “You could argue that by not looking at it, we’re promoting polygamy.”