Dec 31, 2017

In breakthrough, polygamous sect members reach agreements to stay in homes on Utah-Arizona line

 Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Christine Marie Katas working with FLDS women after the home they were living in received a second eviction notice, Monday May 1, 2017.
Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
December 26, 2017

They refused to sign agreements. They refused to pay $100 a month. They let the property taxes go unpaid. They moved from house to house to stay ahead of constables with eviction orders. Or they moved out of their community altogether rather than cooperate with the legal entity they thought was an affront to their religion and the so-called apostates working for it.

But after 12 years of impasses, members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints appear to have found a way to stay in the homes in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz.

Recently, according to people on all sides of the long dispute, FLDS members have begun submitting letters of intent saying they will live in and maintain homes owned by their former land trust, called the United Effort Plan, or UEP. The letters say the occupants also will pay the property taxes on their respective homes.

As for the $100-per-month occupancy fee for each home that has been a particular sore spot for FLDS members, UEP Executive Director Jeff Barlow said Tuesday that is being negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

For some members, the fee may be deferred permanently — going on a ledger but never to be collected. In other cases, the fees may be directed toward some project that benefits the entire community rather than go toward the administration of the UEP.

“So far, I have not had anybody contact me that we couldn’t keep them in their house,” Barlow said.

In one recent example, Barlow said, the UEP served eviction notices on 20 homes in Colorado City. Residents at 10 of those homes opened a dialogue with UEP or engaged a third-party who worked out an arrangement with the trust. Those evictions were halted, Barlow said.

Norma Richter, an FLDS member who says she has reached such an arrangement with the UEP to stay in a home, chose her words carefully Wednesday. She was adamant that the arrangement did not represent a compromise or an agreement.

Richter said “an understanding” had been reached between some FLDS members and the land trust.

“We aren’t even agreeing with them,” Richter said of the UEP. “We’ve just worked out a situation or something where they will stop the evictions.”

Richter said that earlier this month, she moved into a 13-bedroom house in Colorado City that is owned by the UEP. Twenty-three family members will live there with her when everyone is moved in, she said.

“The land still belongs to Heavenly Father,” Richter said. “I feel like if you prayerfully take care of what you have here, it’s pleasing to our father in heaven.”

Hildale and Colorado City are collectively known as Short Creek. In 1942, residents there donated land and property and created the UEP to practice a so-called fundamentalist Mormon tenet of living in a united order. The FLDS was incorporated in 1991. While technically separate legal entities, leaders of the church controlled the UEP.

In 2005, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff moved to seize the UEP out of concern that FLDS President Warren Jeffs was mismanaging it — putting people at risk of losing their homes and furthering Jeffs’ own lawbreaking. A state judge in Salt Lake City still maintains oversight of the trust, though he has given a board of trustees management authority.

FLDS members believed properties owned by the UEP had been consecrated to God and, acting on orders from Jeffs and other church leaders, refused to cooperate with a state-controlled UEP. In all but a few occasions, they eschewed the requirements to sign occupancy agreements and pay the $100 monthly management fee. Many FLDS members also let property taxes go delinquent on the parcels where they were living, though those bills were usually paid just before deadlines for any tax sales.

After a Utah Supreme Court ruling in 2014 ordered the Hildale properties subdivided, the UEP began evicting people who were behind on taxes and hadn’t signed occupancy agreements. Most of the Hildale properties have since been sold — often to former FLDS members or their family.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in Phoenix ordered the Colorado City properties subdivided. FLDS members still unwilling to work with the UEP faced the prospect of having almost no housing in Short Creek.

UEP trustees and staff, all of whom have family in the FLDS, have long said they did not want to evict people. Barlow believes the breakthrough may have come in October when the trust was poised to seize the FLDS’ meetinghouse.

When sheriff’s deputies and a locksmith arrived to serve the eviction on the Leroy S. Johnson Meetinghouse in Colorado City, an FLDS leader — Barlow has declined to say who — appeared. An agreement was reached for the FLDS to keep the meetinghouse.

“I think that the word is getting out that the board of trustees truly does want people to stay in their homes,” Barlow said.

Barlow said the arrangements between the UEP and FLDS members specify the resident responsible for maintaining the property and paying the taxes.

Some of the arrangements have been made through an intermediary — an organization called Voices For Dignity. It helps people in Short Creek — in and out of the FLDS — find housing, legal assistance, clothing and other necessities.

Christine Marie Katas, who runs the organization with her husband, said the UEP has started giving her a list of properties to be served eviction notices. She goes to the occupants in those homes and encourages them to come to an understanding with the trust.

“We are delighted to help the FLDS find ways to remain in their homes without having to violate their religious beliefs,” Katas said in a text message.

Katas said she is speaking with Barlow about extending the arrangements to commercial properties owned by the UEP, as well as buildings the FLDS members have been using as schools.

The housing dispute has coincided with hunger and poverty for FLDS members who have remained in Short Creek. Phil Jessop, who operates a food bank out of his transmission shop a few miles north of Short Creek, said the FLDS members he sees there appear to not belong to the United Order — the sect’s upper echelon. Jessop believes the leaders have largely forgotten the congregation in Short Creek.

“I do think that if they can keep their homes in Colorado City, they’re probably not in the FLDS or in the Order,” Jessop said. “They may be trying to hold on, but from what we understand, [Order members have] been instructed to move out of Colorado City.”

Still, Jessop said, anyone with permanent housing may be less reliant upon Jeffs, and that’s a good thing.

Jeffs is serving a sentence in Texas of life plus 20 years in prison for sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives.

Richter said she has not signed anything promising anything to the UEP. To reach her understanding with the trust, she said, she had to borrow money from a bank and friends to pay about $21,000 in back taxes owed on the home where she moved this month.

She then made the eight-hour round trip to Kingman, Ariz., to pay the taxes in person. Richter did not want to give the UEP the check so it could pay the bill.

Richter gave the tax receipt and her letter of intent to Voices For Dignity. Richter said she did not seek permission from FLDS leaders before reaching the understanding.

“It’s an individual reach in prayer and faith,” she said.

She doesn’t know how many other FLDS will reach such understandings. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of her fellow parishioners have already moved out of Short Creek, feeling as though the homes there have been desecrated by former FLDS members, whom current members refer to as apostates.

“But at the same time, some of us feel like we’ve got to hang on to what we have the best we can without compromising,” Richter said.

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