May 20, 2017

Bleeding the Beast That Is Warren Jeffs

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Members of the FLDS really don't like to pay taxes. They don't readily cooperate with the government, or acknowledge its authority. FLDS children are taught that Warren Jeffs is president of the United States. They will take financial support from illicit government forces, though, as we recently saw with the food stamp case, which ended in generous plea deals and the possible rapture of Lyle Jeffs. Their pattern of tax evasion and collecting millions in benefits is part of a "bleeding the beast" philosophy.

FLDS may be waging a slow war of attrition against the government, but it's one they appear to be losing. That sword cuts both ways. In fact, their lack of cooperation with federal and state government can mean that they're cutting off their noses to spite their collective face. Secular forces are gradually eating up their land and property wealth and it's their own refusal to cooperate with these forces, which in many cases are trying to help them, that could cost them everything.

Case in point, Short Creek, the FLDS stronghold made up of Hilldale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ,  is currently seeing an exodus of FLDS faithful. They would rather leave their homes than sign agreements and pay their property taxes.

"The Crick" is managed through a trust called the UEP (United Effort Plan). Originally set up by Warren Jeffs, the UEP was seized by the State of Utah, which argued that it was being egregiously mismanaged. Among the problems, those who were excommunicated were made homeless. As a state run trust, the UEP no longer applies a religious test, and some FLDS "apostates" have been able to reclaim homes in their old community, alongside those who remain devoted to "Prophet" Warren Jeffs. But FLDS members are in arrears.

"They only require three things: someone keep their property taxes paid, they have an occupancy agreement in place, and they pay $100 a month court-ordered occupancy fee," said [Executive Director, Jeff] Barlow.

Current members of the FLDS sect have been less then willing [sic] to comply, thanks to church orders. Many stopped paying property taxes, and were then evicted. Barlow's town map painted a picture of the problem, with blotches of red, purple, orange and yellow on it.

"All of the red and purple are four years delinquent," said Barlow. "All of the orange are three years, and the yellow is two."

 photo cricktaxes

According to Barlow, the trust is even willing to waive the $100 fee, rather than evict them. But for many FLDS faithful, this would be akin to a deal with the devil. They will not negotiate with the "beast" or with "apostates" like Barlow.

To FLDS members being evicted from their homes, this is a replay of historic persecution of their LDS predecessors.

The FLDS take photos and video of every eviction.

“It’s for our history,” said 18-year-old Shandra Johnson.

Referencing a moment in early Mormon history, Johnson went on to explain: “The saints were driven out of Nauvoo. We read about that.”

For others, though, who were forced out of their community by church edict and Warren Jeffs's caprice, the trust is allowing them to go home. Among them is one of Jeffs's discarded wives.

"I was the 65th wife of Warren Jeffs," said [Briell] Decker. The FLDS church leader was said to have 79 wives.

Decker, born Lynette Warner, has bought one of Jeffs' mansions, as she continues to battle PTSD, due to her time in the Church. Decker said her time in one of Jeffs' houses was mostly positive, but the rest of her time in the FLDS Church, and her attempts to escape it, has left her traumatized.

Decker said she has major PTSD, and for her, being back in the house actually helps her cope.

. . .

Decker was able to get the house mentioned in this article, through a charitable trust looking to put property in the hands of former Church members or contributors to the community.

Decker hopes to create "transitional living" for other "celestial wives" who find themselves, by choice or by circumstance, without a place to go.

Another reluctant bride, Elissa Wall, who Jeffs forced into marriage with her cousin when she was only 14, is taking a more direct approach to extracting his wealth. She's suing him.

For the past 10 years, Wall has pursued the personal injury lawsuit. With default judgments secured, she could now collect millions.

. . .

Even though Jeffs and the FLDS Church have not responded to the lawsuit at all, Judge Kelly said he wanted to give them one last chance.

Wall previously reached a partial settlement with the UEP, but she has her eye on other FLDS enclaves.

Collecting on those damages could involve Wall and her attorneys pursuing judgments in other states, where the FLDS Church has scattered. The state of Texas seized the "Yearning for Zion" ranch after Jeffs was convicted. The Utah-based polygamous sect has properties in South Dakota and Colorado, among other places.

When Texas moved against the Yearning for Zion ranch, FLDS faithful were already showing signs of folding up their tent – or, in this case, their cars and watchtower – rather than fighting back against the encroaching "beast." Some members attempted to comply, paying off some back taxes, but their lack of engagement meant that they didn't even understand why they were being evicted or how to defend their property holdings.

So anyone expecting the remaining members to send an FLDS representative to court on January 6, 2014, when Fifty-first District judge Barbara Walther held a hearing to decide if the state could seize their 1,600-acre property as contraband, may have been naively tied to convention. No one appeared in court on the group’s behalf (a result, some suggest, of Jeffs’s instructions that his followers “answer them nothing”), and Walther ruled in favor of the state, allowing law enforcement to “enter the property and take an inventory.”

While the eviction notice giving the residents thirty days to appeal the ruling remains attached to the entrance of 2420 County Road 300, it’s unclear if the church members are accurately interpreting the proceedings. Four days before the scheduled hearing, a man entered the Schleicher County courthouse with partial payment of the church’s 2013 county taxes ($58,100 of a $406,399.22 bill); around the same time, a man walked into the Schleicher County appraisal district office and handed over a check covering the full school district and water tax bill of $401,888.89. One would think that if the group intended to abandon the property soon, they wouldn’t have bothered to pay nearly half a million in taxes, which makes the no-show at the hearing all the more confounding.

At least one person, though, tried to make it clear that the hearing addressed a separate issue than tax payments. On January 2, the same day the two men handed over the checks in Schleicher County, a young man named Rulon Dan Jessop drove from Eldorado to Austin and introduced himself to the Schleicher County ISD lawyer, Sara Leon. “We invited him in,” Leon recounted. “He said, ‘I just wanted you to know that I paid my taxes; hopefully, this means we don’t have to have a hearing Monday.’ And I said, ‘The hearing Monday is the state’s hearing, and they’re seeking other relief.’ He said, ‘I understand,’ and left.”

Rather than bargain with a state they consider illegitimate, FLDS faithful are scattering to other enclaves. It's only a matter of time before the host states of those enclaves fight back, and South Dakota is just getting started. In Warren Jeffs's slow, quixotic campaign against the "beast," the hunter has become the hunted.

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