Utah judge orders sale of polygamous sect's land

Associated Press/August 24, 2009

Salt Lake City - A Utah judge has ordered the sale of a 400-acre parcel of land that is part of a communal property trust established by followers of jailed polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs.

In a ruling issued Monday, 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg says a liquidity crisis of the United Effort Plan Trust makes the sale of Berry Knoll necessary. The land-rich but cash-poor trust has about $3 million in debts and no dependable stream of revenue.

The order calls for the northern Arizona property to be sold to the highest bidder but gives no timetable. The decision comes nearly a month after Lindberg took public testimony on the sale.

"Having now considered all the arguments for and against the sale, the court concludes that the trust's financial condition, and the ongoing difficulties in securing a reliable revenue stream to meet its past and present obligations warrant granting the (sale)," Lindberg wrote.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may appeal Lindberg's ruling in the state courts, church spokesman Willie Jessop said.

"The FLDS will exhaust every available remedy to preserve our children and to preserve our lands," said Jessop, who notes that the trust had no cash debts prior to 2005.

Per Lindberg's decision, court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan, who manages the trust, will advertise the sale, accept the bids and select the bid that most benefits the trust. Lindberg also gives Wisan room to reject the bids and instead accept an offer on the land tendered last year.

Trust attorney Jeffs Shields, who represents Wisan, said they hope to get the bid process established and moving within a few weeks. An advisory board that works with Wisan is to meet Wednesday, Shields said.

"We're not going to delay this," Shields said. "I hope we'll have other bids."

Last fall the FLDS asked the federal court to intervene in the sale. The case has been on hold and will likely go back for a ruling from U.S. District Judge Dee Benson before a sale can be finalized.

Worth an estimated $114 million, the UEP holds most of the land and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The twin border towns are home to members of the FLDS.

The FLDS consider communal living a religious principle and formed the trust in 1942 for the shared benefit of all who keep the tenets of the faith.

Wisan has managed the trust since 2005, appointed after the trust was seized by the Utah courts amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs. Revisions to the trust during his tenure have converted the trust into a secular entity.

The FLDS view state-intervention in the trust as part of an attack on the religion. Members rejected Wisan's management and largely ignored him, unless threatened with eviction from their homes.

Wisan first sought to satisfy trust debts, which include fees owed to his firm, his attorneys and some property taxes, through the sale of Berry Knoll last fall.

FLDS members countersued in state and federal court to stop the sale, claiming a portion of the land, which is used for grazing and farming, had been designated for a religious temple.

In her ruling, Lindberg said those actions - and those of Hildale and Colorado City leaders who have also squabbled with Wisan during the past four years - ultimately contributed to her decision. Lindberg said the lawsuits and delays have helped ratchet up the debts.

"In sum, a number of options could have been employed to minimize the need to sell trust assets had the FLDS community and the cities been willing to cooperate with the trust," the judge wrote.

Lindberg also said the FLDS had offered "no alternatives" to meet the trust's financial obligations.

Jessop disputes Lindberg's assessment and said Wisan racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt long before church members filed a single lawsuit. As part of a settlement negotiated in June with Utah's attorney general, the FLDS leaders had also agreed to pay off the debt without selling any land, he said.

Lindberg rejected the settlement.

"We clearly had an alternate way of taking care of this," said Jessop. "So it's disingenuous for the judge to say we caused the problem."

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