Contending a polygamous church trust that controls the property of thousands of its members is in "disarray," dissidents on Friday asked a Utah judge to appoint substitute trustees and a receiver to stop what they claim is a waste of assets.
Without intervention, the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people in Utah, Arizona and Canada could be endangered, the former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints say in a motion filed in 3rd District Court.
"The only real way to protect the trust for the benefit of the people is for the court to appoint substitute trustees who are able and willing to carry out its intended purposes," the motion says.
"Basically the idea behind it is our clients want to go home to visit their parents without fear of being kicked out," said Sam Brower, a private investigator working with the plaintiffs' attorneys.
The motion pertains to two pending suits that name as defendants the FLDS; its president, Warren Jeffs; and the United Effort Plan Trust (UEP) and seek monetary damages.
One was filed in July 2004 by Brent Jeffs accusing three of his uncles, including Warren Jeffs, of sexually assaulting him when he was a child and calling it "God's work." A month later, a group of young men who call themselves the Lost Boys sued over what they allege was their banishment from the community as a way to perpetrate the practice of polygamy.
The trust controls virtually all the homes and other property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the border communities that are home to the FLDS and some 10,000 residents, many of whom support the practice of polygamy.
These dissidents believe that Jeffs, who has banished dozens of men and taken control of their homes and families, has gone into hiding. In the past year, FLDS representatives have bought a 1,600-acre ranch near the west Texas town of Eldorado and workers have built what appear to be dormitories, a meeting house, a large home and a temple. Representatives also have bought land near Mancos, Colo.
The dissidents also say that the whereabouts of only one of the six UEP trustees is known. They worry that Jeffs, and possibly others under his command, are not protecting the community's assets and the church members who are supposed to be beneficiaries.
And they note that the lawyers for the FLDS defendants have withdrawn from the cases and that Jeffs has failed to respond to the lawsuits, paving the way for a possible default judgment in both matters.
Despite their advantage now, the former church members say they are willing to hold off seeking judgment in their favor to achieve their principal motive in filing suit - "protecting their loved ones and others who have an interest in the UEP Trust from religious coercion by preserving and protecting their interests in their homes and property."
The dissidents insist appointing new trustees is the best approach and reject a proposal made by the FLDS' former lawyers - who dropped their representation over a "fundamental disagreement" over how the clients wanted to proceed in the cases - to notify everyone living on UEP land before a judgment is entered.
Even assuming they could locate all the affected residents in the United States and Canada, where the FLDS has a community in Creston, near the Idaho border, "it is questionable whether the majority of these people, who are still controlled by Warren Jeffs, could realistically avail themselves of any judicial procedure to protect their rights," Brent Jeffs and the Lost Boys say in their motion.
The dissidents want Lee Van Dam, an expert in real estate, to fill the position of receiver/special fiduciary.
They are asking that current trustee James Zitting, who they believe to be in good favor with the FLDS Church, be left in place and new members who would represent various factions be appointed. Their favored appointees are Canadian FLDS Bishop Winston Blackmore; Roger Williams for the residents of Centennial Park, Ariz., a group that broke away from Jeffs' leadership; and Spencer Johnson for Hildale and Colorado City residents who do not follow Jeffs.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Friday that his office has weighed in on the motion to protect the beneficiaries and the assets "so they won't be diluted in any way."