Jun 10, 2016

Ex-polygamous sect members buying homes in isolated towns

Brady McCombs
Deseret News
Associated Press
June 10, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — Julie Jessop is planning a fall wedding in the backyard of the 30-bedroom house where she spent her childhood with some 50 siblings in a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border.

But hers won't be a plural marriage.

Jessop and her fiance are a monogamous couple among a growing faction who aren't members of imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs' sect, but still want to live in this this remote village at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs.

Some have been lured back by the option of owning homes they once lived in under a program that's part of an effort to loosen Jeffs' grip on the community — and to bring it into modern society.

Jessop is renting the 12,000-square-foot house with plain, gray brick walls and several front doors. She's updating the kitchen, including the addition of gray cabinets. She is living there with her fiance and several other family members.

The next step is getting approval to buy it at a discount.

The home is one of 150 seized by a state-run trust since a Utah judge in 2014 ordered authorities to evict sect members refusing to pay $100-a-month occupancy fee, declaring she was fed up with a free-rider problem in the community.

A seven-member board made up of people with roots in the community has awarded ownership rights for nearly 80 of the homes to people who left or were kicked out of the sect.

Jessop left the religion more than two decades ago as a teenager when she became pregnant. After stints in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, she returned about eight years ago so one of her daughters could get more one-on-one attention in a small-town school.

She said she experienced a "roller coaster" of emotions when she moved back but eventually remembered why she loved living in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.

"There's so many more people that are moving home. It's becoming a community again like it was when I was a kid," said Jessop, 39. "I will die in this house."

The trust — with more than 700 homes valued at more than $100 million — has been under Utah state control since 2005 after allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other sect leaders.

The idea of home ownership is new. Since the trust was created in 1942 by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism — church leaders held the deeds while adherents lived in the homes. Under communal living arrangements, residents paid their keep in labor, not cash.

The demand for homes outpaces supply, in part because only a handful of new homes have been built since 2002, when Jeffs banned new construction, according to an annual report issued by Utah officials who oversee the trust.

Arnold Richter is a member of the board that decides who gets the homes. The 39-year-old cabinet designer started questioning Jeffs — who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides — in 2002. He was a quiet dissenter until leaving the sect in 2011.

Richter and other board members give priority to people who helped build or renovate a home.

About one-third of decisions have been easy, Richter said, simply awarding a house to someone who built and has always lived in the structure. But some homes were built by one person, renovated by another and lived in by several families.

"Every house has a story behind it," Richter said. "It's a slow and deliberate and careful process."

Prices range from $6,000 to $118,000, but people usually pay tens of thousands of dollars for a home. The cost is formulated by how much work the buyer put into the house.

About 10 percent of the homes have been redistributed, meaning this program will take years, maybe decades, to complete, said Jeff Shields, an attorney representing the accountant who has been managing the trust since Utah seized it.

The Department of Justice has asked a judge to order that be done as part of a series of remedies after a jury found the twin towns guilty of violating the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic government services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups.

"It took two generations to get this mess started," Shields said. "It's going to take at least a generation to get it cleaned up."


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