It took all of 11 minutes for Judge Michael Westfall to issue his decision: convicted sex offender and polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs will face questioning in the latest lawsuit against him, the United Effort Plan Trust and other prominent members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
However, the order had one condition: the suit’s plaintiff — a woman referred to by the initials, R.H. — must be deposed first.
To accomplish this, the judge created a 60-day window. If the defendants' lawyers fail to coordinate the questioning during that time period, Jeffs’ deposition may proceed regardless.
The lawsuit that spurred Tuesday’s hearing began in 2017, when R.H. accused Jeffs and other FLDS leaders of ritualtistic sexual abuse. It’s the 17th case filed against a configuration of the three parties since 2004.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — often referred to by the accronym, FLDS — is the most extreme of the polygamist sects that have splintered from mainstream Mormon church since it renounced polygamy in 1890.
Church members recognize their own prophet, to whom total obedience is highly valued. The group’s current prophet, Warren Jeffs, is incarcerated in Texas where he is serving a life sentence plus 20 years for the sexual assault of two of his underage wives, one of whom was younger than 14.
Jeffs’ brother, Lyle, was known to handle the day-to-day affairs of the group, but he was sentenced to five years in a federal prison for food stamp fraud in 2017.
In total, the FLDS church counts roughly 10,000 members, most of whom live in the two sister cities — Hilldale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona — that straddle the border between the two states. However, the group has offshoots in Texas, South Dakota, Colorado, Nevada, Canada and Mexico.
The case also named another defendant: the United Effort Plan Trust. The trust was created in 1942 to bundle together the religious community’s assets. Jeffs controlled the trust until the state took it over in 2005. It was only this summer that a board of community members assumed full control.
Strong and Hanni, the law firm representing the trust, had fought the motion to depose Jeffs, arguing that it was too early in the case to launch such an inquiry, among several other concerns.
Judge Westfall was not persuaded.
“I’m frankly a little bit perplexed by your objections,” he said. “I really didn’t see a good reason for why I should deny the plaintiff an opportunity to take a defendant’s deposition.”
The attorney representing R.H., Lance Milne, said the deposition is a necessary and normal part of fact-finding. But others who have worked against Jeffs in the past say it’s questionable how much information a deposition will yield.
Sam Brower is a private investigator who has spent the better part of two decades looking into crimes committed by Jeffs and other FLDS leaders. He’s been in the room with Jeffs for two previous depositions and said that in both cases Jeffs pleaded the 5th amendment for every answer other than his name.
“After a certain amount of questions, the attorneys that were questioning him asked, ‘Are you going to do this on every question?’ And his attorney interjected, ‘Yeah, he’s going to plead the fifth,’” he said.
Even if Jeffs refuses to answer in this deposition, his silence can still be held against him — and potentially the trust. Although the trust today is different from when Jeffs ran it, one of the key questions in the suit is whether it is liable for Jeffs’ misconduct.
Zachary Shields, an attorney representing the trust, says it would be “grossly unfair” to hold the trust responsible for Jeffs’ past actions because its beneficiaries include many women and children whom Jeffs also harmed.
But Milne, the plaintiff’s attorney, argues that the trust shouldn’t get a pass. He says it’s misleading to paint all the trust’s beneficiaries in the same light.
“Many members of the trust sat by and knew of and let the abuse occur,” he said. “I have a very hard time believing that members of the trust who are attempting to get homes are victimized to the extent that RH was.”
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.