SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah judge has appointed a board of trustees to sort out the redistribution of more than 700 homes in a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border where Warren Jeffs' sect is based.
State Judge Denise Lindberg's order Wednesday gives the panel limited power, though. The five-person board still must get final approval from the court in deciding who should get which homes. Many are expected to have multiple claims from people who have at one point lived in or worked on a house.
The creation of the board is another vital step toward the state's long-held goal of returning the homes and a scattering of property — estimated to be worth more than $100 million — to community members.
The homes have been in state control since 2005 due to allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other sect leaders. Many people remain followers of Jeffs but a growing number in the community have left or been kicked out.
Recently, two dozen families were given deeds to their homes — a first in the community. Since the trust was created by the fundamentalist Mormon sect in 1942, church leaders held the deeds while others lived in the homes.
Meanwhile, others are being evicted for refusing to pay a $100-a-month occupancy fees for years, depriving the trust of more than $4 million.
Lindberg also decided to keep the same person to oversee the trust despite the man's recent plea of no contest to prostitution charges. Attorneys general in Utah and Arizona asked for Bruce Wisan, an accountant who was appointed to manage the trust after the state took it over in 2005, to be removed and be replaced by former Utah Lt. Governor Val Oveson.
Lindberg said Wisan's personal issues have not affected his work with the trust. She said his knowledge and familiarity with the issues outweigh any benefits from handing the reigns over to Oveson.
Three of the board members Lindberg picked have already served as advisers to Wisan and the trust: Deloy Bateman, Margaret Cooke and Don Timpson. The other two — Greg Barlow and Arnold Richter — are new.
Lindberg said she plans to name four more people to the panel at some point to create a nine-person board to represent more community interests. Terms will be capped at six years.
None of the board members are current followers of Jeffs' sect, known as The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. That's because their jailed leader has made it clear they are not to participate. Jeffs is in a Texas prison, where he is a serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.
The Utah Attorney General's Office said it's pleased with Lindberg's decision to appoint the board. "We feel it will give those most affected the strongest representation in making these difficult decisions," spokeswoman Missy Larsen said in a statement.
The FLDS is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church and its 15 million members worldwide abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibit it.