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The Story of a Polygamist Colony and its $115M in Property

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It all started with a false police report. In 2008, Texas police received a phone call from a woman claiming to be a child bride married to a 50-year-old man. The authorities ended up storming a $1.1M polygamist compound near Eldorado, where followers of a radical Mormon sect (read: the kind that believes polygamy leads to exaltation in heaven) were living in fortress-like solitude.

Led by Warren Jeffs, the splinter faction had around 10,000 followers and had amassed some $115M worth of property in Utah and Arizona (with holdings in five other states and Canada). It owned nearly all of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, dusty twin cities that straddle the border of the two states. In all, church leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which was founded after the Mormon church decided to outlaw polygamy and excommunicate all practitioners, owned some 750 homes.

It turned out that the phone call that led to the raid was a hoax (the woman who called was not involved with the FLDS church), but over 400 children, including pregnant underage girls, were removed from the property. Warren Jeffs was promptly arrested when the police realized he had indeed taken a number of child brides. He was later convicted of child sexual assault, and is currently serving a life sentence in prison plus 20 years.

The 750 houses had actually already been seized by the Utah courts. Jeffs had previously had several run-ins with the law in Utah, where most mainstream Mormons disavowed his sect, although none of his convictions there—all of which involved underage women—ever stuck. A couple of years before his arrest in Texas, he skipped town and was put on the FBI's "Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list with an $100K bounty and a warning that he "may travel with a number of loyal and armed bodyguards."

At this point, the state of Utah was pulling out all the stops to cut off Jeffs' funding. Since 1942, a trust owned by the FLDS church had been snapping up land in the two border towns. In addition to homes, they also owned parks, schools, and at one point, a zoo. The community's atmosphere had been compared to that of a prison, particularly for women, who were strongly discouraged from leaving the polygamist lifestyle.

"Life here is a strange confluence of the 21st century and the 19th," wrote CNN in 2008. "Women drive minivans and talk on cell phones but wear ankle-length pioneer-style dresses and braids. Children ride horses and ATVs through town, with its combination of paved streets and tamped-down dirt roads. The men and teenage boys are often absent, traveling across the West doing the construction work that has been a cornerstone of the community's wealth. It is essentially a company town, except that the company is the church."

Problematically, none of the town's millions of dollars worth of properties had deeds; the people living in them had been "awarded" their land after entering into marriages arranged by the church. In its suit after Jeffs went on the run, lawyers for Utah claimed that the sect leader was "fleecing trust assets" and selling off undeveloped land to support his life in exile, and that his schemes were adversely affecting his followers who still lived there, but did not have legal rights to their homes. The exact language used was "stealing from the faithful." The state won the right to dismantle the trust.

After Utah took control of the trust, FLDS followers were given the opportunity to secure titles to their homes in the two towns, Colorado City and Hildale.

Today, after nine years of legal wrangling—the redistribution of over $100M in assets naturally takes some time—two dozen of these houses were released to residents, with many others to follow. The homes are "strange, haphazard-looking structures," according to CNN, that were built to accommodate polygamous households and were frequently expanded as "more wives and children joined the household." They range in size and quality from "grand, turreted mansions of brick and stone behind 14-foot fences, and boxy, ramshackle buildings with plywood siding."

Perhaps predictably, the real estate divisions have divided the church. Many followers who cooperated with the accountant who oversaw the dissolution of the trust actually ended up breaking with the FLDS church in order to secure new properties, or the titles to the houses they already lived in. They could do this by paying $5K plus recording fees.

Many adherents, however, wished to remain in good standing with the church, even with its leader serving life in prison, and have engaged "in silent, passive resistance, flinging mailed notices…on the post office floor and putting up fences and no-trespassing signs outside their homes," wrote CNN. They want no part in what they view as a "hostile government takeover by authorities trying to end polygamy."

Meanwhile, Warren Jeffs' sprawling $3.6M compound in Hildale is now the home of America's Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast. Rooms start at $85 a night.

· Redistribution of homes begins in polygamous sect [AP]
· Polygamists Get Unusual Offer [CNN]
· All Curbed Features posts [Curbed National]