This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Long before today's debate over the need for a federal task force to probe the FLDS Church, a federal civil rights investigation concluded the polygamous sect was doing nothing worth prosecuting.
Documents recently released under a Freedom of Information request show in 1985, the FBI focused on two FLDS leaders: LeRoy S. Johnson, then 97, prophet and president, and Rulon T. Jeffs, who later succeeded him and is the father of current president Warren S. Jeffs.
Agents did not focus on sexual abuse or marriage to underage girls, allegations that sparked the recent removal of about 450 children from a ranch set up by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas. And the documents make only passing references to polygamy.
Instead, the FBI investigated whether FLDS leaders were committing mail and wire fraud while illegally evicting people from their homes in the sect's traditional home base of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
But after stepping in at the request of Brent D. Ward, then the U.S. Attorney for Utah, the U.S. Department of Justice closed the case without filing charges.
A lawyer who represented evicted FLDS members in a related lawsuit considers the federal investigation a missed opportunity to curb the power of the sect's leaders.
"Some of the systematic policies that adversely affected young men and young women might have been diminished or possibly stopped," said St. George attorney Clay Huntsman. "Now it's gotten out of hand."
In the years since then, ex-members have alleged that boys and young men are banished for minor offenses and that Warren Jeffs has overseen a purge of fathers whose wives and children are reassigned.
FLDS men have been convicted in connection with marriages to underage girls, and Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to serve up to life in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to rape for a marriage he conducted. He is facing similar charges in Arizona.
'They kicked you out': In the early and mid-1980s, FLDS leaders evicted dozens of people from their homes in Colorado City and Hildale. In lawsuits, former residents claimed they were tossed for trivial offenses against FLDS beliefs, for falling out of favor or simply at the whim of leaders.
In court affidavits and in statements to the FBI, they described men, including deputy sheriffs, arriving at their homes and saying Johnson or Jeffs had ordered them off the property.
"They were using law enforcement to intimidate the people they wanted out," said Ben Bistline, who was evicted and has since written a history of the FLDS. "That's the biggest complaint I had at the time.... If you didn't do what they said, they kicked you out."
In January 1985, at least six evicted members met with Ward in Salt Lake City. According to notes from the meeting, they shared their stories and provided documentation of their evictions.
They also complained about the removal of 115 names from a list, filed in Mohave County, of beneficiaries of the United Effort Plan Trust. Historically, the trust has held nearly all property in the two towns. Those removed had not been consulted, the evictees said.
The meeting notes show Ward wanted an FBI investigation to move in two directions: Were the FLDS committing civil rights violations by evicting people for religious purposes or without due process?
And did the FLDS commit wire or mail fraud when they gained control of properties, altered the list of UEP beneficiaries, and began evictions?
'A lot of agitation': In the summer of 1985, the FBI set out to interview evictees. In one affidavit, a man recalled how he and his wife were riding horses when men approached in a truck and told them to pack their belongings and leave town. The men said "Uncle Roy" Johnson no longer wanted the couple. One woman said she came home to find men sleeping there. Church leaders later accused her of ripping out the home's cabinets and evicted her, she said.
But notes of other interviews show some left voluntarily to find work. And those evicted also acknowledged they were aware that living in the community required remaining in good standing with the church.
Some former home owners claimed church leaders had pressured them to deed their houses to the UEP trust. They said they had understood they would be allowed to continue living in their homes, in part as a reward for performing maintenance and construction projects throughout the community.
Agents in Utah and Arizona gathered documents, including newspaper clippings, and reviewed correspondence between Huntsman and Charles Ditsch, a Phoenix attorney who represented the FLDS.
Ditsch wrote that some of the 115 deleted beneficiaries were not residents of Arizona. He also said being listed did not guarantee a benefit from the trust, nor did being excluded prohibit receiving a benefit.
"There was a lot of agitation in those days by people who had been apostosized by the church, who had fallen away," Ditsch said in a recent interview.
Evicting the 'unfaithful': The final document provided by the FBI is a Nov. 7, 1986, memorandum by Albert S. Glenn, then a trial attorney with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The changes to the beneficiary list did not violate any federal rights, he said. And the specific evictions showed "minimal" or "no articulable " evidence of religious discrimination, he concluded.
The evictions occurred "because the church leadership was unhappy with certain activities of these persons, actions which were inconsistent with the principles of the church," he wrote. "This is not a denial of housing because of the victims' religion per se, but rather because the victims were supposedly unfaithful to the church's requirements."
As a landowner, Glenn added, the UEP had the right to evict tenants who did not follow its rules.
The memo recommended the civil rights investigation be closed, and said Ward and the U.S. attorney for Arizona agreed.
The FLDS case was "not a typical scenario that we received in the housing-type complaints," said Glenn, now an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. More common 1980s housing rights cases involved intimidation tied to discrimination, such as the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross in a yard, he said.
Ward now prosecutes obscenity cases for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and did not return calls for comment.
About three weeks after Glenn's memo, Johnson died at age 98 and was succeeded by Rulon Jeffs. Since his 2002 death, the sect has been led by Warren Jeffs.
The evicted tenants who sued won this concession: the church could buy them out, or they could live in their homes for their lifetimes. But the UEP is now run by a court-appointed trustee, appointed after a judge found FLDS leaders were failing to protect its assets from lawsuits.
'He's strengthened': Huntsman believes the 1985 investigation was too narrow, arguing the FBI and prosecutors should have considered using racketeering, or RICO, statutes, generally aimed at organized crime and large criminal operations.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has expressed interest in pursuing a RICO investigation of the FLDS, said it was one of several tactics discussed at a Wednesday meeting of prosecutors from Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Texas.
Bistline believes any prosecution involving Johnson and Rulon Jeffs in the 1980s would have been unsuccessful in changing the sect.
"It would have made martyrs out of them, just like Warren Jeffs," Bistline said. "He's strengthened."