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Man Overseeing Polygamist Assets Brings Group Into 21st Century

The man appointed to overseeing the assets of the polygamist group controlled by fugitive Warren Jeffs has made significant progress in dragging the 19th-century-style religious sect into the 21st century.

In the year since Bruce Wisan began the task, 41 people have paid their property taxes and only two people haven't responded to the 43 delinquent tax notices that have been sent out.

The two, among Jeffs' most influential supporters, have been served with eviction notices.

Additionally, Wisan has begun to break down into individual parcels the land that had long been held in trust by the United Effort Plan and controlled as a communal fiefdom by leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

And, Wisan said he has a commitment from a high-tech company to set up shop in the twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

"You can't say enough about how wise his handling of the UEP assets has been and how he has taken charge in his long-range view of privatizing what has been a collective," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.

Meanwhile, Jeffs remains on the FBI's most-wanted list on charges of sexual misconduct for marrying underage girls to much older men.

After several close calls and countless reported sightings of the fugitive, Goddard said authorities are closing in. The jury selection for the trial of the first of eight men to be charged with sexual misconduct for taking young brides is scheduled to begin this week.

The significance of Wisan's work, however, may trump any of those developments.

Wisan was appointed as special fiduciary to oversee the trust's assets, which he said includes an estimated $120 million. A Utah judge removed FLDS leaders from financial control of the trust last summer.

The communal trust is based on the frontier Mormon concept of a united order, in which workers donate their labor to a common fund to benefit everyone in the community.

The FLDS has no connection with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which denounces polygamy.

Wisan is breaking up the community and working to put an individual face on the more than 800 homes in the two cities. If residents don't pony up their property taxes, he has vowed to evict devotees of Jeffs and replace them with former members of the sect, including young men forced out by older FLDS leaders in the competition for multiple wives.

Eviction notices were sent out last month to two of Jeffs' most influential supporters, former UEP trustee James Zitting and Colorado City Town Councilman William Shapley.

"I think, given their prominence, they are testing me to see how far we will go toward removing people from the houses," Wisan said. "It's very obvious that Warren has given the order for his followers to pay property taxes."

Surveys are ongoing in Hildale and will soon begin in Colorado City to break down the UEP land holdings into individual housing lots for property-tax purposes by this time next year, Wisan said.

He added that the FLDS has been able to maintain its hold on followers by listing dozens of homes on a minimum of 40-acre lots on county records in Arizona and Utah, and shuffling living arrangements as it saw fit.

While no ruling has been made in Utah probate court about the ultimate reorganization of the UEP, Wisan has submitted lengthy documents backing a "spendthrift" trust for what are now the loyal followers of Jeffs who are expected to become individual property owners.

"That allows the trustee to dole out money and the transfer of title to the property over time until they can learn to handle it on their own," Wisan said.

Given the unique conditions, that kind of trust is necessary, said Salt Lake City resident Carolyn Jessop, a former polygamist wife who is expected to be a trustee for the UEP when a new board is appointed.

"It would be a best-case scenario to just give everyone a deed to their house and privatize as quickly as possible," she said. "But we know many of them are so brainwashed that they would turn around and sell the homes and give the money to Warren and leave a bunch of kids homeless. We're going to have to go about this gradually."

Wisan said he is intent on infusing new blood into the community.

The publicly traded computer company that Wisan refused to identify is expected to sign a contract and break ground soon, Wisan said.

Wisan also said he wouldn't hesitate to allow some of the "Lost Boys," young men run out of the community by older polygamist males, to receive title to houses that have delinquent taxes.

But he wants to make sure he introduces change slowly.

"I've already had a number of the ex-FLDS members come to me and say, 'Hey, you're in charge. We want to use the baptismal fountain and other things in the church,' but I'm not going to allow things like that to happen," Wisan said.

For now, Wisan said the challenge is keeping the UEP solvent economically and protecting it against a battery of civil lawsuits filed by the "Lost Boys," an unidentified former polygamist wife who fled the community and a nephew of Jeffs who claimed that the sect leader sexually molested him.

The trust lost an estimated $6 million after more than 1,300 acres of land west of Colorado City was sold in 2004 and 3 acres of land on which Western Precision, a machine manufacturer, was sold to a Utah corporation controlled by the FLDS, according to a lawsuit filed by Wisan on behalf of the trust against the FLDS church.

The trust also has suffered other large economic losses, Wisan said. When trust leaders were stripped of control, they began removing items of value: A log-cabin plant was disassembled and moved last year along with a grain elevator, the machinery in a potato processing plant, and a number of other modular buildings and irrigation equipment.

Meanwhile, the sect's assets continue to grow exponentially in sect properties in Colorado and South Dakota and near Eldorado, Texas, where a huge temple to the faith has been constructed.