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The land trust that owns much of the real estate in two polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona line has filed a lawsuit to take over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' meetinghouse.
The building, which sits in Colorado City, Ariz., has been the spiritual and logistical headquarters of the faith for almost three decades. The United Effort Plan (UEP) filed the lawsuit March 9 in Mohave County Superior Court in Arizona. A copy was first obtained and published by Courthouse News Service.
The lawsuit contends the UEP already owns the Leroy S. Johnson Meetinghouse just called the "LSJ" by residents and the 7 acres it sits on. The FLDS merely have a special-use deed to control the property, the suit claims.
That deed was issued in 1988 and required the FLDS to operate the building in accordance with the tenets the church had at that time. In its lawsuit, the UEP argues that the FLDS have stopped using the LSJ as it was intended.
In an interview Tuesday, Jeff Barlow, the UEP's executive director, said the LSJ used to be open to the public for funerals or community programs. But under Warren Jeffs, who succeeded his father and became FLDS president in 2002, the LSJ is closed to all except FLDS members.
"It was built as a community project and should benefit the community," Barlow said.
Jeffs is serving a sentence in Texas of life in prison plus 20 years for crimes related to sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives. The FLDS do not have a spokesperson. No lawyer has filed notice of representing the church in the lawsuit nor has the FLDS responded to the suit.
The lawsuit accuses the FLDS of using the meetinghouse to "further criminal activity and other disruptive, non-religious purposes." The UEP doesn't specify what it believes has occurred at the meetinghouse.
In other legal proceedings, former FLDS members have testified the LSJ had a control room from which church security could monitor cameras all over Colorado City and adjoining Hildale, Utah. The security force watched who drove into town, who they spoke to and warned people if law enforcement arrived, according to testimony.
Church leaders, including former FLDS Bishop Lyle Jeffs, kept an office in the LSJ. In an episode in 2006, according to testimony in another legal proceeding, the FBI arrived at the meetinghouse to serve Lyle Jeffs and other men with subpoenas. FLDS members, trained by the Hildale and Colorado City police force, slowed the agents so Lyle Jeffs could escape on an ATV stored in the meetinghouse basement, according to the testimony of one of his former confidants Dowayne Barlow.
Court records in a criminal case in federal court in Salt Lake City also have suggested Lyle Jeffs stayed in the LSJ after he absconded from a pre-trial release last year. Lyle Jeffs is the last defendant in what prosecutors have called a scheme to defraud the food stamp program, and he remains at large.
The lawsuit also makes a technical argument. The special deed issued for the meetinghouse was not valid because the church was not incorporated in 1988, the lawsuit claims.
The UEP was formed in 1942 by members of what eventually became the FLDS. Fearing Warren Jeffs was mismanaging the trust and using it to further his lawbreaking, the state of Utah seized it in 2005.
A judge in Salt Lake City still oversees the UEP, but has granted authority to the board of trustees, some of whom are former FLDS members. Current church members have consistently refused any interaction with the UEP since the state takeover.
Barlow said the UEP Board of Trustees placed taking control of the meetinghouse near the top of its priority list when the trustees gained increased authority from the judge about a year ago. The trustees, Barlow said, are open to letting the FLDS continue operating the meetinghouse, but church members will need to abide by the 1988 terms.
"If the FLDS want to work something out with the trust, I'm sure the trustees would be very happy to hear from them," Barlow said.