Some fear eviction in polygamous sect's land fight

The Associated Press/April 29, 2009

Some former members of a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona line are worried they will lose their homes in the legal wrangling for control of the church's property trust.

Residents no longer connected to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints say they fear that settlement talks may lead to members of the church winning control of the land and homes in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

"We're concerned that we are going to lose our homes," said Louis Bistline, who was raised in the church but left in 2006. He and about 25 others are writing letters to state officials voicing their concerns.

Paul Murphy, a spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, urged patience. "I understand the concerns and the fears, but in the middle of negotiations, there are a thousand different scenarios and options," he said. "I think, as hard as it is, people need to wait and see what is hammered out."

The FLDS have long controlled the twin towns, where most of the land and homes are held in the church's United Effort Plan Trust.

The trust was seized by Utah courts in 2005 after allegations of mismanagement. Court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan has converted the religious communal trust into a secular entity. That opened the door for individual property ownership and for former members - whether they chose to leave or were excommunicated - to return to the community and claim a share of trust assets.

The FLDS view secular management of the trust as a violation of their religious rights. Five months ago the sect sued to regain control of the trust and launched settlement discussions.

With Wisan's permission, some ex-members have moved into homes abandoned by FLDS during the past four years. Now, as FLDS return to the community, some nonmembers have said they have been confronted and told to move. About 8,000 people live in Hildale and Colorado City.

"What we're afraid of is that the FLDS people are going to take it all the way and start another trust," said Bistline, who lives in a home assigned to him by FLDS leaders in 2005. "Then we'll all get evicted."

Rod Parker, an attorney for the FLDS, said no one involved in the negotiations wants to leave anyone homeless and that protecting the homes of non-FLDS trust beneficiaries with legitimate property claims has been a priority for the attorneys general of both states.

The FLDS follow the early teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the practice of polygamy, which is believed to bring glorification in heaven. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.

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