A Utah machine shop that authorities say has ties to one of the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted fugitives is changing its name and moving to Las Vegas.
Western Precision Inc. is among the biggest employers of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The border towns are home to 5,000-8,000 followers of fugitive church prophet Warren Jeffs, who was placed on the FBI's Top Ten list in May on charges of sexual misconduct with a minor and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Attorneys for Western Precision filed court documents in early June stating that the company would move to Las Vegas by August. Days after the filing, Western Precision changed its name to Newera Manufacturing Inc., according to the Utah Division of Corporations. On July 3, Newera Manufacturing was registered in Nevada as a foreign corporation, according to the secretary of state's office.
Newera would not be the first company with ties to Jeffs operating in Las Vegas. In May, a project manager for JNJ Engineering told the Sun that the construction company had ties to Jeffs. JNJ has earned about $7.5 million on projects for the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
Where Newera Manufacturing will set up shop in Las Vegas is unknown. Company attorneys would not comment on the move or name change. For the past year, the company has been embroiled in a legal battle with Bruce Wisan, federally appointed fiduciary of the United Effort Plan Trust, which has church holdings valued at more than $100 million.
Wisan, appointed to oversee the trust in May 2005, filed a lawsuit against Western Precision his first day on the job. He alleges the machine shop and the 3.3 acres it sits on were fraudulently sold in 2004 by former United Effort Plan trustees, including then-trust controller Jeffs. The former trustees sold the business and land to Western Precision for $25,000, although the property has been valued between $1.8 million and $5 million, according to court documents.
Wisan toured the 55,266-square-foot Western Precision property in Hildale last weekend, inspecting the building to determine what shouldn't be moved to Las Vegas with pending litigation over ownership.
"If somebody moves something that is part of the building - that is a problem," he said. "My visit there was to make sure we are all on the same page."
Western Precision was owned or controlled by Jeffs and the trust when it was sold to "insiders and/or alter egos" of the trust and the polygamist leader, Wisan's suit alleges.
Western Precision's attorneys argue the company paid a fair price for the business. John Wayman, president of Western Precision, called the machine shop Hildale's largest employer and said in an affidavit that the business employs more than 100 people and has never been an "insider" of the trust.
Former employees of the machine shop, however, say Western Precision has given up to $100,000 a month to FLDS leaders, generating extra income to support Jeffs' endeavors by demanding free work on Saturdays and withholding salaries.
Richard Holm, who was born into the church but was told to leave in 2003, says members of the FLDS community are taught from an early age that donating labor to "church work projects" is necessary to secure a trust property in adulthood. Holm says that he helped build the Western Precision facility in Hildale without compensation. Holm, who still lives in Hildale, says Western Precision is probably moving to Las Vegas to avoid increasing scrutiny.
"They (Western Precision) can be more private," he says. "They are not being watched by the local people as much, and so they can just kind of melt into the background, fade into the woodwork."
Attorneys for Western Precision told the Salt Lake Tribune in April that the company made donations to the FLDS church and its leaders in the past but has not done so for two years.
Wendell Nielsen, who served as president and manager of the machine shop from its creation in 1981 until the early 1990s, is part of Jeffs' inner circle and disappeared from the twin communities about the same time as the polygamist leader in 2003, according to Mohave County investigator Gary Engles.
Engles has investigated the church for two years and was responsible for gathering information that led to the arrest and conviction of one church member last month in Kingman, Ariz., on charges of sexual misconduct with a minor. The victim was the defendant's minor wife from an arranged marriage, which is common in the polygamist communities. Seven other FLDS members are awaiting trial on similar charges.
Western Precision only employs FLDS members - devout followers of Jeffs who have close ties with the prophet, even if most don't know where he is hiding out, Engles says.
Nielsen's son, John, worked for Western Precision for years before he was told to leave the church about two years ago. According to an affidavit, Jeffs' brother Isaac told Nielsen he had been "found wanting" and needed to repent from afar. Nielsen's brother, Guy, still works for the shop and is listed as the registered agent of Newera Manufacturing at the Utah Department of Commerce.
Wisan is not the first person to file suit against Western Precision. In 2005, attorney Roger Hoole filed a complaint against the company for fraudulent sale. He represented two former FLDS members - including a brother of Jeffs' - and sought to protect their interest in church assets. Wisan was appointed fiduciary after the United Effort Plan trustees failed to respond to the lawsuits and took over Hoole's case when Wisan took over the trust.
Court filings detailing the company's move to Las Vegas say that Western Precision will inform the Utah court of its new Nevada address and new name, although attorneys for the company had yet to supply the information as of Monday. Attempts to contact Western Precision management were unsuccessful as of Tuesday.
FLDS faithful increasingly are branching out from the twin communities and into places such as Las Vegas, Hoole says, in search of revenue to support their prophet on the lam.
"They are dispersing, and so much of it is going to be landing in Las Vegas," he says. "They do business in a lot of different names, but he (Jeffs) controls it all because he controls their hearts and minds."