Utah court eyes lawsuit involving polygamous sect leader

AP News
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Posted: Nov 05, 2015 4:37 PM
Utah court eyes lawsuit involving polygamous sect leader

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit filed by a woman who says polygamous leader Warren Jeffs forced her to marry her cousin when she was 14.

Elissa Wall is seeking as much as $40 million in damages from the communal property trust of the church group led by Jeffs. The fund is now controlled by the state.

Her testimony against Jeffs helped convict him in 2007 of being an accomplice to her rape in Utah. The verdict was later overturned on a technicality.

Trust lawyers want the high court to toss Wall's suit, saying she came to a secret agreement with her former husband Allen Steed to help win money from the trust.

Steed previously testified that his sexual relationship with Wall wasn't forced.

Under the agreement, however, Steed said he would not dispute Wall's claims if she would back a 30-day sentence in a plea deal that resolved the rape case against him.

"The secret settlement is a game-changer," said Jeffrey Shields, a lawyer for the trust. "We're a sitting duck. We can't defend this claim."

Wall's lawyers say the agreement was aboveboard and allowed her to focus on Jeffs after making legal peace with Steed, who was 19 at the time of the 2001 marriage.

Alan Mortensen, a lawyer for Wall, said Jeffs forced his client to agree to the marriage in order to stay in her home on trust property.

"If she would consent to the underage rape she could stay there," he said. "The property, the food, the bishop's storehouse, everything came through ... trust administration."

A trial judge said the agreement was troubling but shouldn't derail Wall's lawsuit. Trust lawyers appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which did not immediately set a timeframe for its ruling.

Estimated to be worth about $110 million, the United Effort Plan trust holds nearly all the land, homes and businesses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

It was built by the polygamous group to fulfill a belief in holding property communally then taken over by the Utah attorney general in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement.

Trust lawyers say that if Wall wins her lawsuit, it could force people from their houses in the border towns that were recently hit by fatal flooding and expose the trust to lawsuits from others abused by Jeffs.

"It would devastate the trust," Shields said.

He argued that most members of the group didn't know about Wall's marriage or other abuses and shouldn't be forced to endure the consequences.

Mortensen contends there were other underage marriages in the polygamous group.

Wall doesn't want to take anyone's home, but the lawsuit could bring accountability to Jeffs and his loyal leaders who still control the group, he said.

Jeffs was on the FBI's most wanted list before he was caught and put on trial after Wall came forward. The conviction put him in prison for the first time, but it was overturned on a technicality by the Utah Supreme Court.

Jeffs was then sent to Texas to face charges from a 2008 raid on the group's remote ranch in the state.

Jeffs, 59, was convicted of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides and is serving a life sentence.

The Associated Press does not generally identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Wall has spoken publicly about the case and published a book about her life.