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UTAH: Jailed Mormon FLDS sect leader retakes legal control of church

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Jailed Mormon FLDS sect leader Warren Jeffs retakes legal control of churchSALT LAKE CITY — Jailed polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs has resumed legal control over his Utah-based church even though he is jailed in Texas and court documents recently revealed that two 12-year-old girls had been taken from Canada to marry him in 2005.

Documents filed with the Utah Department of Commerce show Wendell Loy Nielsen, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, resigned his post Jan. 28. Jeffs signed the documents retaking control of the church corporation Feb. 10 and filed the papers with the state five days later.

"I, the undersigned, Warren Steed Jeffs, have been called and sustained as the president," Jeffs writes in a cover letter to the Commerce Department.

The 55-year-old resigned the presidency in 2007 after he was convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice, but he remained the faith's spiritual leader.

The Utah Supreme Court overturned Jeffs' convictions last year. He's now in a Texas jail awaiting trial on aggravated sexual assault and bigamy charges.

Texas prosecutors say information uncovered during a raid on the church's Eldorado, Texas, ranch show Jeffs had sex with two children, one under age 14 and the other under age 17. A court entered not guilty pleas on his behalf.

Last week, new allegations surfaced about two 12-year-old girls who had been married or "sealed" to Jeffs in 2005. The information was in an affidavit in a British Columbia Supreme Court inquiry over whether banning polygamy is a violation of constitutionally protected religious rights.

The affidavit states the girls had been taken from Canada to Utah by their parents and married to Jeffs. They were later taken to Texas by another sect member. It's not clear whether the girls are the same victims whose relationships with Jeffs are the basis for the Texas charges.

Church spokesman Willie Jessop did not immediately return a message from The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Nielsen's Houston-based attorney Kent Schaffer confirmed the resignation but said he did not know if Nielsen had made the move voluntarily or had been pushed out.

Nielsen, 70, has long been a senior church leader, serving as a counselor to both Jeffs and his father, Rulon Jeffs, who led the church from the 1980s until his death in 2002. Nielsen had been the president of the church corporation since January 2010.

It wasn't clear whether Nielsen has retained his ecclesiastical responsibilities to the church in the wake of his resignation.

A successful businessman, Nielsen lives at the faith's Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas. In 2008, he was one of 12 men indicted by Texas authorities after the raid there, which stemmed from an allegation that a teen bride had been physically and sexually abused.

Nielsen is charged with three counts of bigamy alleging that he married three adult women in 2005. Handwritten family records seized by police during the raid showed he may have as many as 21 wives. Nielsen has not entered a plea to the charges, and a trial date is tentatively set for June 6, a Schleicher County court clerk said Wednesday.

Nielsen is living in Utah but will return to Texas for his trial, his lawyer said.

It's not clear how the change in the FLDS presidency may affect a long-running civil case in Utah involving a church-run communal property trust that holds most of the land and homes occupied by church members.

Utah courts seized control of the United Effort Plan Trust in 2005 after state attorneys said Jeffs and other church leaders had fleeced its $100 million in assets for their own use. A state judge revamped the trust to carve out its religious principles and appointed a non-FLDS accountant to manage the assets.

The FLDS rejected state intervention as a part of an effort to dismantle the church and failed to challenge the action until 2008. Since then, members have been grappling with state attorneys and the court-appointed financial manager to regain control of the land and other assets.

Neilsen has sued to gain standing in the case, claiming that the legal documents that formed the trust required the state to turn the property over to the church corporation if it was determined that that the trust could not continue to operate as a religious entity.

Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has handled FLDS legal matters for more than 20 years, declined to comment on Nielsen's resignation and the implications it may hold on FLDS efforts to win back the trust.

The FLDS practices polygamy in marriages arranged through church leaders. Some marriages have involved underage girls, although in 2008, Jessop said the faith had halted the practice.

The faith has about 10,000 members. Most live in twin communities along the Utah-Arizona border. In addition to the Texas ranch, the faith has enclaves in South Dakota and Bountiful, British Columbia.

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