Plundering the Faithful
Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs continued to elude a nationwide manhunt at the end of 2005 as the fundamentalist Mormon municipalities he controls along the Arizona-Utah border headed toward financial disaster.
Jeffs, 50, was named to the FBI's most wanted list last August after he fled the largest polygamist community in North America to avoid prosecution on seven felony counts brought by a grand jury in Mohave County, Arizona. The charges, filed last June, allege that Jeffs illegally performed the "spiritual" marriages of three underage girls to already-married men and ordered the men to consummate the unions.
Jeffs is the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church that still practices polygamy. The mainstream Mormon Church gave up polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's obtaining statehood.
In the months since the indictments, evidence that the economy of the polygamist communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, is plunging toward collapse is obvious. Many businesses have closed or moved out, the Colorado City and Hildale governments are facing serious financial problems, the electric utility jointly owned by both towns is in default on $21 million in bonds and the Colorado City public school district has been forced into receivership.
Most telling is the fact that Jeffs has relinquished control over the $111 million United Effort Plan trust that owns nearly all the land and buildings in the twin towns that straddle the state line.
Jeffs walked away from the UEP trust when he failed to come out of hiding and defend himself in two lawsuits filed in 2004 by former FLDS members. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, with the support of Arizona AG Terry Goddard, convinced a Utah state court to place control of the UEP trust in the hands of a special fiduciary, whose job is to protect the trust's assets.
One of the suits alleges that Jeffs repeatedly raped a male nephew when the child was about 5 years old; the other alleges that he forced scores of young boys to leave town to reduce competition for wives with older men in high standing with the church.
Earlier this month, Jeffs was slapped with another lawsuit. In this one, an unnamed FLDS woman living near Cedar City, Utah, says Jeffs forced her as an underage girl into a polygamous marriage.
Gregory Hoole, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the plaintiffs in all three cases, says Warren Jeffs' failure to defend himself in court and his subsequent forfeiting of control of the UEP are clear signals that the prophet has abandoned Colorado City and Hildale.
"He isn't going to spend one single red cent on protecting the towns or the trust!" Hoole declares. "He will let the towns disintegrate while he continues to fleece the people."
While Jeffs no longer has total economic control of the community, he still has immense influence over the lives of the thousands of FLDS members who remain in the towns north of the Grand Canyon, about 50 miles southeast of St. George, Utah.
About 10,000 FLDS members in Colorado City, Hildale and in other smaller polygamist communities in North America continue to worship Jeffs as an infallible god. The faithful continue to place an enormous amount of money in his control in the form of "tithes," as well as provide him safe havens from the police. He is believed to have floated among several polygamist communities from British Columbia to west Texas, where the church is building a lavish temple near the town of Eldorado.
Jeffs' influence is so strong, former church members say, that dozens of men he has excommunicated in the past two years -- an action that strips these men of their wives and children -- still contribute money to the church in the hope that he will reinstate them.
One reason FLDS members are able to provide substantial funds to Jeffs is that they live in houses on church-controlled land in Colorado City and Hildale and are free from paying mortgages.
And lately, FLDS residents of the homes have refused to pay property taxes. They are delinquent on $177,000 in 2005 property taxes owed to Washington County, Utah, and on $325,000 owed to Mohave County, Arizona.
Law enforcement authorities and sources in the community believe all this may be a reason Jeffs' followers do not seem to have a cash-flow problem, even as municipal financial troubles mount in Colorado City and Hildale.
On October 28, police intercepted an FLDS courier ferrying between $140,000 and $200,000 in cash and other valuables to Jeffs. Seth Jeffs, the prophet's younger brother, was arrested near Pueblo, Colorado, after sheriff's deputies discovered the cash, pre-paid credit cards and pre-paid cell phones in Seth Jeffs' vehicle.
The money police found was stashed in envelopes addressed to Warren Jeffs. Police also obtained a wealth of information concerning the financial operations of the FLDS, including hundreds of letters from FLDS members. Seth Jeffs has been charged with one federal felony count of harboring and concealing the polygamist leader from arrest. He is free on a $25,000 property bond. His trial is set for January 9 in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Former FLDS members say they expect Warren Jeffs to continue extracting cash and other assets from his followers living in Colorado City and Hildale, as long as they can remain in their tax- and mortgage-free houses.
The UEP trust actually owns the property on which the residences sit, but the land will remain under FLDS control for several more years until the UEP fiduciary, Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan, completes legal steps necessary to evict the non-taxpaying FLDS members.
Once the cost of remaining in Colorado City and Hildale becomes greater than the benefits, former FLDS members predict, the man church members consider their only earthly link to God will order church faithful to move from the towns.
"Warren Jeffs will abandon this place," predicts lifelong Colorado City resident Isaac Wyler, who was excommunicated from the FLDS in January 2004. "Warren could care less what happens to this place."
Meanwhile, Wyler says, Jeffs "can get the people to pay him the money they normally pay in property taxes, so he can make a few million more dollars. It's a good, long-term plan for Warren."
The possibility of the FLDS' abandoning the towns isn't just the talk of excommunicated church members. Even high-profile members in good standing, such as Hildale Mayor David Zitting, talk about a mass exodus.
Zitting tells New Times there are "parallels" between the situation in Colorado City and Hildale and what occurred 160 years ago. Early Mormon leaders abandoned their stronghold of Nauvoo, Illinois, 19 months after church founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in nearby Carthage on June 27, 1844. The mass exodus from Nauvoo began in February 1846.
"There was a lot bigger community in Nauvoo [than there is in Colorado City and Hildale], and in the middle of the winter, the whole community upped and walked across the ice of the Mississippi River and into no man's land," Zitting says.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he says, but if FLDS leaders order people to move, "a high percentage" would.
Despite the prophet's legal troubles, the mayor says, "people still have a very high love and respect for [FLDS] leadership."
Last May, a Utah state court assigned Salt Lake City accountant Bruce R. Wisan the extremely difficult task of taking control of Warren Jeffs' most important asset, the United Effort Plan.
Wisan was immediately faced with a serious problem. He was charged with protecting UEP assets for the beneficiaries of the trust -- which includes current and former members of the FLDS. Naturally, both sides despise each other.
Nevertheless, Wisan had to communicate with both groups in an effort to create an inventory of UEP assets. He was roundly criticized by the opposing sides every time he held a meeting with the other group. Further complicating the issue was that Jeffs forbade FLDS members, save a few of his top aides, from communicating with Wisan.
This was just the beginning of Wisan's problems.
He soon discovered that for the previous 63 years of FLDS control, virtually no records were kept of non-real estate property and money given to the trust by FLDS members.
"The UEP didn't even have a checkbook," Wisan says.
The lack of financial documentation, Wisan says, makes it impossible to determine the value of contributions by FLDS members and former members to the trust. Without a record of contributions, it will be difficult to determine the value of any future distributions from the trust to current and former church members.
The only trust assets that could be clearly identified, Wisan says, are parcels of real estate owned by the UEP in Colorado City and Hildale, along with some property at an FLDS outpost near Creston, British Columbia.
Wisan determined that the UEP owns 2,600 acres and buildings in Colorado City worth $67 million, and 2,170 acres and buildings in Hildale worth $40 million. FLDS property in British Columbia includes 309 acres and buildings worth $4 million.
At the same time Wisan was attempting to complete a cursory inventory of UEP real estate, he was faced with a brazen attempt by FLDS leaders to move control of valuable property from the UEP's control to that of FLDS members loyal to Warren Jeffs.
In one high-profile case, Wisan finally reached a contentious settlement last September with FLDS officials involving the sale of 436 acres just outside Hildale. A few months before the FLDS was stripped of its control of the UEP and Wisan was appointed fiduciary, FLDS leaders -- still sitting as UEP trustees -- sold the land to FLDS insiders.
Wisan managed to regain control of the property, but through a complex set of legal entanglements, he decided to sell it back to the FLDS insiders in a court-approved transaction. The UEP ended up with $1.5 million from the deal, which Wisan is using to cover the costs of managing and inventorying the trust.
During settlement negotiations for the 436 acres, Wisan says he was assured by FLDS leaders that church members living in UEP-owned houses on UEP-owned land would pay property taxes.
But the FLDS reneged on its promise, failing to pay the property taxes in full.
"I was lied to," Wisan says. "I'm not happy."
For the past six decades, FLDS leaders collected money from church members living on UEP land to pay property taxes. Church elders at first pushed a wheelbarrow along streets, and FLDS members tossed cash into it to cover the taxes on the land and homes they did not own.
Former FLDS members say the church ordered members last fall to contribute funds that were supposedly earmarked to pay the property taxes. It is unknown how much money was raised and where that money wound up.
Many believe, however, that it went toward supporting Jeffs' expenses on the run and toward construction of the Texas temple.
Wisan says his dealings with the FLDS have been sobering.
"I have drawn a line in the sand, and I don't want to be pushed around anymore," he says.
Wisan says he has told FLDS officials that if they do not pay their property taxes by 2007, he will begin eviction proceedings. While he would like to begin legal action immediately, Wisan says he must first create new property ownership maps in each town so that every house is attached to an individual lot.
Now, UEP parcels may include a dozen homes on very large lots, making it impossible to tell individual residents how much property tax they owe.
"I want to present to every household the opportunity to rectify the tax delinquency," he says. Those who pay their property taxes in full will be given the opportunity to remain in the homes owned by the trust.
Wisan held a community meeting in November, and urged Colorado City and Hildale residents to set aside funds for 2005, 2006 and 2007 property taxes and be ready to pay them in the future once the property map survey has been completed. Only a handful of FLDS members attended the meeting at the Hildale Town Hall.
"They may be thinking the end is near," Wisan says, in reference to repeated prophecies by Warren Jeffs that the world will soon be destroyed. But when that doesn't come to pass, he says, those who don't have money set aside can be tossed out of their houses.
Such an effort could lead to a dangerous confrontation, law enforcement authorities fear. Residents already are constructing large walls made from block, steel, wood and stone around the perimeter of their residential lots and posting "no trespassing" signs on land they do not own.
There also are clear indications that the FLDS has members who are adept at building powerful explosive devices and are willing to use them. In late November, several juveniles constructed three powerful pipe bombs and used one to destroy a bulldozer rented by a non-FLDS member to level a dirt-bike track, according to a Colorado City police report.
Unless the world does suddenly end, FLDS members in Colorado City and Hildale could face three difficult choices:
Defy their fugitive religious leader and pay property taxes to remain in their homes. Abandon the community they and their forefathers helped build and set off with their large families to Texas and elsewhere. Or refuse to pay property taxes or leave when authorities attempt to evict.
Hildale Mayor David Zitting laments the days gone by when most everyone in the community got along.
Zitting, who will mark his 20th year in office in January, says there was a long period when living on UEP trust land and strictly adhering to the commands of FLDS religious leaders was a spiritual utopia.
But unity came at a high cost.
Hildale, like neighboring Colorado City, has always been a town where dissent is forbidden and all political decisions are ultimately made by religious leaders. Men in community leadership positions, such as mayor, cannot win elected posts without church approval.
"The moment this becomes a political battle is the moment I don't want to be involved in it," Zitting says. "I don't see this as a political position."
And why should he?
During last month's election, only 100 votes were cast for mayor in Hildale, population about 2,000, and he got all of them.
"It was a lower turnout than usual," Zitting says, as if that were the unusual aspect of the election.
One of three election judges overseeing the votes was a woman who, Zitting says, shares his household, which is a polite way of saying she is a plural wife.
Asked if he thought it was proper to have Eyvonne B. Zitting sit as an election judge in a race in which he was a candidate, the mayor noted that almost everybody in Colorado City and Hildale is family and that she was one of a handful of people qualified to serve as judge.
It is not as if Zitting was the only candidate who had a spouse judging the election. Patricia Jessop also sat as an election judge and shares a household with Hildale Councilman Dan C. Jessop, who, of course, also won reelection.
Such blatant conflicts would cause a firestorm of protest in most communities, and the election results would probably be voided. But these anomalies are a fact of life in the fundamentalist towns.
But Zitting says not everybody in the polygamist enclave is complacent anymore, even if they haven't figured out a way to seize political power.
He refers to the legion of excommunicated FLDS members who have remained in the area. Some of these dissidents, Zitting says, have complained bitterly to the news media, particularly New Times, about the sensational aspects of polygamy.
He blames media coverage of the community for the serious financial and social problems facing the area: "I really think that the media impact on the community is the number-one factor."
And, in a sense, he is right.
New Times began investigating the fundamentalist Mormon area three years ago, and its stories have revealed widespread sexual abuse of minors inside polygamist unions and huge financial irregularities involving apparently illegal use of public funds. Only in the past year have some of those responsible for the sexual abuse been indicted for their alleged offenses. And only in the past year has the Arizona Attorney General's Office gotten serious about investigating the probable misuse of public funds at places like the Colorado City Unified School District.
As for Zitting, he is faced with the difficult task of trying to keep the Hildale town government in operation as it teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. Prophet Jeffs' order to FLDS members to refuse to pay property taxes is contributing to the financial woes gripping Zitting's town.
Hildale's $1.1 million budget is facing a $202,000 shortfall. Zitting has had to institute an across-the-board spending freeze.
"Expenditures, except for those that are locked in, have stopped," he says.
In past years, Zitting says Hildale could turn to a commercial bank for a loan to cover intermittent budget shortfalls, but the town's longtime lender, Zion's Bank, is refusing to provide credit "because of the uncertainty in the community."
Despite the financial strain facing the town and the fugitive flight of his religious leader, Zitting appears calm. He says disputes over polygamy date back to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith.
"This isn't new what's going on here," the mayor says. "It's been going on for many, many years."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.