SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah judge said Friday that hundreds of people living in Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border who have collectively failed to pay millions in occupancy fees for their houses should be evicted.
State Judge Denise Lindberg said far too many have been ignoring the $100-a-month, per-house fee for too long and that "enough is enough." She suggested starting with a few homes, giving families notice that they must pay up or pack up. That will send a message ahead of expanding the action throughout the community, she said.
"We have had a free rider problem here for a long time," Lindberg said. "There needs to be action, or otherwise the law means nothing."
Lindberg's strong and surprising remarks came Friday during a hearing in a Salt Lake City courtroom to address progress toward formation of a board that will oversee the redistribution of 750 homes in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. The homes have been in state control since 2005 due to allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other sect leaders.
Lindberg said she has chosen seven people, from 12 finalists, for the panel but said she won't announce their names or create the board until the fees are being paid and the trust has a stable revenue source.
No timetable was set for sending the eviction notices, but her emphatic directions mean they could begin within months, said Jeffrey Shields, an attorney representing the accountant who has managed the trust since Utah seized it. It was Shields who first raised the issues of evictions during Friday's hearing.
"Until we get ground control," Shields said "we should not turn this whole thing over to the board."
The non-payments have occurred for as long as seven years, depriving the trust of millions, Shields said after the hearing. The trust should be receiving $75,000 a month, and is getting only $10,000 to $12,000, he said.
A yearly report showed the trust was owed $4.18 million in unpaid occupancy fees at the end of 2013, The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier this year.
Lindberg spent much of the final part of the hearing expressing her frustration with the lingering problem and explaining why evictions are the only option. The judge acknowledged it will be an unpopular decision but said authorities have been dangling the empty threat of eviction for too long.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who attended the hearing, said he would prefer that a board is formed first but noted his office won't stand in the way. Reyes said he would coordinate with state agencies to ensure evictees have access to services they need.
Willie Jessop, a board finalist and former bodyguard for Jeffs, said he's concerned about the idea of kicking people out of their homes but said he believes people will pay up when given notice.
Jessop said people didn't stop paying in rebellion, but because they felt they shouldn't have to pay property taxes and occupancy fees. He said state officials initially told community members the occupancy fee was to cover property taxes for open spaces such as farms and gardens.
During the hearing, David Wolf of the Utah Attorney General's Office said eviction should be the absolute last resort, pointing out logistical issues with preventing destruction and looting of homes before they are evicted. Lindberg downplayed those concerns, saying that's an issue with evictions in any community.
The state's goal has always been to return the homes and a scattering of property — worth an estimated $118 million — to community members. The board's creation is a key step toward a resolution.
None of the finalists are members of Jeffs' sect. That's because their jailed leader has made it clear they are not to participate. Jeffs is in a Texas prison, where he is a serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church and its 15 million members worldwide abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibit it.
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