SALT LAKE CITY — The resolution of a lengthy legal battle over homes and land owned by a Utah-based polygamous sect crept forward Tuesday, when a Utah judge gave initial approval for the creation of a trustees board to oversee the properties on the Utah-Arizona border.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg approved the proposal, which now goes to Utah Legislature.
Lawmakers must find a way to pay $5.6 million owed to Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan, his attorneys and other firms hired to liquidate assets of a communal land trust once run by Warren Jeffs. But until that happens, the long-overdue process of deciding how to redistribute about $100 million worth of homes and properties belonging to current and former members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church in Hilldale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., will remain gridlocked.
Jeffrey Shields, an attorney representing Wisan and the trust, told Lindberg that this proposal meets the requirements set recently by a state board that includes Gov. Gary Herbert. Shields and the offices of the Utah and Arizona attorneys general have also agreed on the plan.
It remains unclear what Utah will do.
Herbert acknowledged Tuesday that the state has a court-ordered obligation to pay up, and said the issue "is not sneaking up on anybody." But he didn't go as far as to guarantee payment, noting that the state needs to assess its liability and determine if there will be more money owed later.
Herbert said he'd like the issues surrounding the settlement resolved before the session ends next week to avoid a special legislative session.
Lindberg said she supports the approach mapped out during the hearing Tuesday in Salt Lake City. The judge's approval is not a final decision, but rather permission to explore the option of the trustees board.
The proposal does not include details of how the property would be redistributed, leaving that up the board.
In a previous hearing, Lindberg expressed concern about whether a truly independent board of trustees can be created in the community. Many of the estimated 7,500 people living in the border communities are FLDS members who follow Jeffs.
Utah prosecutor David Wolf said that was a legitimate concern but that they'll help ensure board members are capable of thinking for themselves.
Shields echoed that, saying safeguards were in place to prevent board members from being blind followers of Jeffs or anybody else.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage girls he considered his brides, but continues to try to lead the sect of about 10,000 people from jail.
Several former sect members attended the hearing, including 29-year-old Patrick Pipkin, who left the FLDS Church in 2006 but still lives in Colorado City. He likes the idea of creating a trustees board, but said it must be comprised of people from all the different groups who built the community.
Like many in the community, not all members of Pipkin's family are in the sect. He estimates about one-third of his 37 siblings have left the sect, while the rest remain followers of Jeffs.
Pipkin, who still believes in polygamy and has four children, has recouped his house, but wants to see other ex-FLDS members get their homes back.
Another prominent member of the ex-FLDS community, Willie Jessop, said he's confident a board can be created that does what's best for everybody.
"There is enough compassionate people in the community that understand the importance of protecting their neighbors' interests, even if their neighbor is required to answer them nothing," Jessop said.
Contributing: Michelle L. Price