At least two leaders in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have resigned their posts in what some former church members say is part of the expulsion of more than 30 people by jailed leader Warren S. Jeffs.
Jeffs, 55, took over legal control of the polygamous sect's corporate entity last week, according to documents filed with the Utah Department of Commerce. An imprisoned Jeffs handed the church's Corporation of the President to his first counselor, Wendell Nielsen, a year ago following Jeffs conviction on accomplice-to-rape charges.
Meanwhile, longtime Hildale Mayor David Zitting resigned his post last month, effective Tuesday.
"I've been mayor for 25 years," Zitting said Wednesday, by way of explanation. He declined further comment.
Though names and numbers couldn't be confirmed with members of the church, former members who still live in the communities say Jeffs exiled both Nielsen and Zitting, along with several other top leaders: Merril Jessop, head of the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas; James Oler, bishop of the group's Canadian settlement; and Terrill Johnson, mayor of Colorado City, Ariz.
Church spokesman Willie Jessop didn't return calls seeking comment.
The expulsions are coming directly from Jeffs, who is able to telephone the community from his cell, said Richard Holm, a former member of the FLDS who still lives in the area. It started about two months ago.
"He's been calling into their church, somehow piping [his voice] into the Sunday church meetings," Holm said.
Staff at Reagan County Jail in Big Lake, Texas, where Jeffs is housed awaiting trial on bigamy and sexual-assault charges, said that all inmates have phones in their cells and are able to make calls on prepaid plans.
Jeffs had been housed at Utah State Prison since he was convicted in 2007 on accomplice-to-rape charges related to presiding over a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. The Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction last year, and he was extradited to Texas.
"Word on the street is, he said that Wendell and Merril weren't doing their jobs," said Isaac Wyler, a former member of the church. "He's not [exiling people] once a week. Typically, this is averaging every other day."
Nielsen, a businessman who started a high-tech machining company, generally ran the day-to-day affairs of the church. Both he and Merril Jessop are thought to have between 20 and 30 wives.
For now, Holm said, Jeffs' brother, Lyle, has apparently taken a leadership role.
When a member of the FLDS is exiled, or "handled," it means he or she is asked to leave the church's property and repent from a distance, Holm said. Some eventually return.
"'Handled' means either a man's priesthood is lost, or it's in question between Warren and the Lord," he said.
Expulsions became more common after Jeffs took over leadership of the church from his father, Rulon, in 2002, said former church member Jethro Barlow. The numbers of people asked to leave tends to increase near the end of each year and around April 6 about the time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established and Mormons believe Jesus was born, he said.
"This is similar to what has been done before," Barlow said.
In 2004, about 20 people were exiled, including longtime Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, and left their families and children behind.
Jeffs' Texas charges relate to alleged spiritual marriages to underage girls, one 12 years old and the other under 17. The charges came after a massive raid on the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, two years ago. Using marriage and birth records gathered in the raid, prosecutors indicted 12 FLDS men on charges that included bigamy and sexual assault of a child. Seven have been convicted, while five, including Nielsen and Merril Jessop, are awaiting trial.
The secretive sect has about 10,000 members, mostly in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia, Canada.
In Utah, the group is facing another legal challenge: Members are trying to wrest back control of their communal property trust, which includes nearly all the land and houses in Hildale and Colorado City. The state of Utah took over the trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by the FLDS trustees.
Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Paul Murphy said the legal change from Nielsen to Jeffs may have an effect on that case, but he couldn't immediately say what the effect could be. FLDS lawyer Rod Parker couldn't be reached for comment.
Murphy planned to meet with social-service providers Thursday to discuss what help they could give to people leaving the community.
"It's hard to prepare for what you don't know has happened but we have to make sure we're ready," he said.
Jeffs retakes legal control of FLDS
From the Feb. 15 filing with the Utah Division of Corporations and Commercial Code:
"I, the undersigned, Warren Steed Jeffs, have been called and sustained as the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and by virtue of such calling I am the corporation sole of the Corporation of the President," the document reads.