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An attorney for a polygamous sect says a bonfire set in Colorado City, Ariz., last weekend was part of an effort to clean up an old building, not to burn thousands of books.

"They thought they were performing a service by cleaning up this building," said Rod Parker, who represents the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "It's been a party place for teens to do, as my clients would say, 'immoral acts.' "

Last weekend, members of the FLDS took the books, worth $15,000, out of the old schoolhouse where they were being stored by a non-FLDS woman who planned to turn the building into a library, Parker said. The books were donated to the libraries in Cedar City and St. George, as well as the Deseret Industries thrift store in Cedar City, he said.

Workers set the fire to burn debris cleared out of the building, including some books that were damaged beyond repair, Parker said. The book remnants in the ashes, however, led some to conclude that all the books have been burned in the fire.

Like most of the buildings in Colorado City and Hildale, the schoolhouse is part of the FLDS's property trust that was taken over by the state in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement. The court-appointed administrator of the trust, Bruce Wisan, said Colgrove had permission to use the building. No one else had asked him for permission to use it, or move the items stored inside. The FLDS members entered after changing the locks, he said. The Mohave County Sheriff's Office in Arizona is investigating the incident, but a spokeswoman said Friday that no reports had been completed on it.

When the supposed book-burning became public last week, Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Paul Murphy, who personally donated thousands of volumes, called the incident a "hate crime."

"They were not their books to give away to burn or donate to anyone else ... that's theft," Murphy said. "[The FLDS] seem to be doing whatever they want."

But polygamy advocates say that language goes too far. Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of Principle Voices, said that while she doesn't condone taking property without permission, tensions between FLDS members and nonmember residents are already high.

"It was very polarizing for accusations to be slung around when people really didn't know the truth of what's going on," said Batchelor, who works with Murphy on Safety Net, a committee that brings government workers together with people from Utah's polygamous communities. "Take a deep breath and wait for more information, assess the harm and the wrongdoing in a very calm and rational way."

Parker said there was a rush to judgment after the supposed book burning became public.

"They jump to the most evil conclusions without bothering to find out the truth," he said. "It's unfair."

The twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale used to have a library, but it was closed and its contents removed several years ago.

The new books had been collected by Stefanie Colgrove, a non-FLDS resident of the community, at least since 2008. They were being stored in an old schoolhouse that Colgrove planned to turn into a library. The building had been unused for at least six years, and was in poor condition during a 2006 visit from The Tribune.

Colgrove could not be reached for comment on whether she has tracked down all the books since recovering hundreds at a Cedar City Deseret Industries.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst