In what may be a historic turning point, an FLDS church spokesman spent four hours Thursday with representatives of the Utah Attorney General’s Office – a meeting both sides described as a small, first step toward more open communication.
Willie Jessop, spokesman for the polygamous sect, met with Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy, and several other staff members.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who traveled to Nevada on Wednesday to discuss the FLDS and other polygamy issues with counterparts from three states, did not attend the gathering. Jessop said he hopes for a future meeting with him.
“We’ve always seen him quick to the table when it’s against the FLDS,” Jessop said, who requested the meeting. “So our question is, what will Mark Shurtleff do?”
It was the first formal conversation between a representative of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Attorney General’s Office since Warren S. Jeffs took over as leader of the church in 2002.
“We hope this meeting will begin to open doors,” Jessop said, who came alone because of “uncertainty about how we’d be treated.”
Torgensen did not return a telephone call Thursday night. Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, did not attend but also said the meeting was a positive first step.
“There are a lot of bridges to be built,” he said. “We’ve talked and now we discover whether we can trust what the other person has said.”
The sect has historically been based in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. It began building the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, in 2004.
The meeting covered a range of issues, most related to the removal of about 450 children from the YFZ Ranch in April.
Among topics discussed: a list created by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and shared with Texas officials, describing nearly two dozen FLDS members as potentially dangerous.
Jessop said he made a formal complaint to Torgensen about the profile list and asked for help setting the record straight about those named on it.
“We’re the kind of people for whom an apology goes a long way,” he said.
Jessop said he was asked whether FLDS would participate in the state’s Safety Net Committee, which facilitates interaction between polygamous groups and government services. But “that’s impossible when you’ve got profiling going on and you’ve got government officials trying to smear us,” he said.
The FLDS have had only limited participation in the committee to date and Murphy challenged Jessop to increase the sect’s presence in the group.
“If he feels people in his community are being unfairly treated, it is the perfect issue to bring up in the Safety Net,” Murphy said.
Jessop said he also was asked about a marriage statement issued by the FLDS church 10 days ago, in which the sect pledged to not violate marriage age laws in any state where members reside. The Attorney General’s Office wanted clarification on whether it would also abide by bigamy laws.
“We’re hoping the FLDS church is going to stop underage marriages, which is the No. 1 issue we’ve had,” Murphy said. The Attorney General’s Office also has wanted clarification from Jessop about his role in representing the FLDS church. “We still need to hear who he is and how much authority he has to carry out whatever he says,” Murphy said.
Jeffs has been sentenced to serve up to life in prison for his Utah convictions as an accomplice to rape, for a marriage he conducted. He is now in jail in Arizona, awaiting trial on similar charges.