SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah judge said Friday that people living in Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border who have collectively failed to pay millions in occupancy fees for their houses should be evicted.
State Judge Denise Lindberg said that far too many have been ignoring the $100-a-month, per house fee for too long and that "enough is enough." She suggested starting with a few homes, giving families notice that they must pay up or pack up. That will send a message ahead of expanding the action throughout the community, she said.
"We have had a free rider problem here for a long time," Lindberg said. "There needs to be action, or otherwise the law means nothing."
Lindberg's strong and surprising remarks came Friday during a hearing in a Salt Lake City courtroom to address progress toward formation of a board that will oversee the redistribution of 750 homes in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah that have been in state control since 2005 due to allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other sect leaders.
Lindberg said she has chosen seven people, from 12 finalists, for the board but said she won't announce their names or create the board until the fees are being paid and the trust has a trusted revenue source.
No timetable was set for sending the eviction notices, but her emphatic directions means they could begin within months, said Jeffrey Shields, an attorney representing the accountant who has been managing the trust since Utah seized it. It was Shields who first raised the issues of evictions during Friday's hearing.
"Until we get ground control," Shields said. "We should not turn this whole thing over to the board."
The non-payments have been occurring for as long as seven years, depriving the trust of millions, Shields said after the hearing. The trust should be receiving $75,000 a month, and is only getting $10,000 to $12,000, he said.
The trust was owed $4.18 million in unpaid occupancy fees at the end of 2013 according to a yearly report on the trust, The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier this year.
After Shields made his argument in court, Lindberg agreed and spent the majority of the final part of the hearing expressing her frustration with the lingering problem and explaining why evictions are the only option. She acknowledged that it will be an unpopular decision, and that some women and children may be removed from homes, but she said authorities have been dangling the empty threat of eviction for too long.
"We have been extremely patient," Lindberg said.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who attended the hearing, said he would prefer that a board is formed first, but that his office won't stand in the way. Reyes said he would coordinate with state agencies to ensure evictees have access to services they need.
Willie Jessop, a former bodyguard for Jeffs and a finalist for the board, said he's concerned about the idea of kicking people out of their homes but said he believes people will pay up when given notice.
Jessop said people didn't stop paying in rebellion, but because they felt they shouldn't have to pay property taxes and the occupancy fees. He said state officials initially told community members the occupancy fee was to cover property taxes for open spaces such as farms and gardens.
During the hearing, David Wolf of the Utah Attorney General's Office said eviction should be the absolute last resort, pointing out logistical issues with preventing destruction and looting of homes before they are evicted. Lindberg downplayed those concerns, saying that's an issue in with evictions in any community.
Reyes spoke several times during the 1 ½ hour hearing, pushed for urgency in creating the board so that community members can be involved in the process. Reyes suggested board members be named, even if they aren't immediately given authority.
"It's always better to have people whose lives are being effected making decisions about what's effecting them," said Reyes, the third attorney general to deal with the case.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office, by phone, also pressed for quick formation of a board.
Lindberg said she would take note of their suggestion, but said she would not name a board until she's confident there is a solid source of revenue via the occupancy fees. She also said she wants to make sure the seven people she has chosen for the board have been paying their fees to set a good example.
Another substantial road block to naming a board, Lindberg said, is acquiring an insurance policy for board members to shield them from being sued.
"These are very sincere individuals who want to work for the benefit of the community," Lindberg said. "I'm not going to expose them to that risk until we have our I's dotted and our T's crossed."
None of the finalists are members of Jeffs' sect. 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 state's goal has always been to return the homes and a scattering of property — worth an estimated $118 million to community members. The creation of a board is a key step toward a resolution.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The practice of 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 polygamy in 1890 and strictly prohibit it today.
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