Women get new trial against church for fraud

Associated Press in Casper Star-Tribune (WY)/July 8, 2005
By Paul Foy

Salt Lake City -- Two women who gave their life savings to an apocalyptic religious group will get a new trial on their terms, the Utah Court of Appeals decided Friday.

Kaziah Hancock and Cindy Stewart sued leaders of a polygamous church for failing to make good on promises they'd get land, some money back and a face-to-face visit with Jesus. The promises were made in return for their contributions to The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of The Last Days.

A jury awarded the women $300,000 in 2002, but 6th District Judge David Mower threw out the verdict after determining he was unable to decide how to divide the damages among church founder James D. Harmston and a dozen other officials from the Manti church, some identified only as ''John Does'' in the lawsuit.

Mower ordered a new trial, then limited the women's legal claims against the church to breach of contract and unjust enrichment - throwing out other claims including fraud, conspiracy and racketeering against church defendants.

The Court of Appeals said the judge was wrong to limit the claims and sent the case back for a new trial on the full complaint.

''These are women who gave their life earnings for some very substantial promises,'' Clark R. Nielsen, an appeals lawyer for Hancock and Stewart, said Friday.

In court filings, Hancock complains her promise of a face-to-face meeting with Jesus went unfulfilled, although she is seeking compensation only for promises of land and financial support, Nielsen said.

Stewart was promised she'd be repaid for liquidating her retirement accounts early. Both were excommunicated from the church in 1997 before they could redeem any promises, court papers say.

Harmston's attorney, Kevin Bond, had argued that the promises were rooted in church doctrine, not a business contract that never was drafted. He said the promises were to be fulfilled by God, not Harmston.

TLC was founded in 1994 by Harmston after his excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

TLC, which preaches the practice of polygamy as one of its tenets, made news in 2002 after posting a declaration on its Web site that the end world was at hand and only its church members would survive.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.