SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court will decide who is on the hook in a child bride's $40 million lawsuit against Warren Jeffs, the FLDS Church and the United Effort Plan Trust.
Elissa Wall is suing all three over her forced marriage at age 14 to her cousin in a ceremony presided over by Jeffs. Wall was the star witness in Utah's criminal prosecution of Jeffs on a rape as an accomplice charge (which was later overturned by the Utah Supreme Court).
In arguments before the state's top court on Thursday, lawyers for the UEP Trust say they shouldn't be held responsible for what Jeffs did. UEP attorney Jeffrey L. Shields argued Jeffs' conduct was so outrageous, the trust that he controlled shouldn't be liable.
But the Utah Supreme Court justices were skeptical.
"In retrospect, it was a really bad idea for these marriages to take place," said Justice Thomas Lee. "But Jeffs' view at the time, as wrongheaded and troubling and problematic as it might be, was that this was a sort of core element of his view of church doctrine and the purposes of the trust?"
"But should the beneficiaries of the trust have to pay the price?" Shields replied.
Justice Christine Durham suggested Jeffs was in charge and acting with full authority.
"The problem is, the trust empowered Jeffs to do what Jeffs did," she said.
Jeffs is serving a life-plus 20-year sentence for child sex assault in Texas, having been convicted for underage "marriages" there. In court, the UEP Trust said he has refused to speak to them in depositions about his conduct as then-head of the UEP Trust.
See photos of Warren Jeffs and some of his alleged wives obtained by FOX 13 (faces blurred to protect any alleged crime victims):
In 2005, the Utah State Courts took control of the UEP Trust, which controls most of the homes and property in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., over allegations that Jeffs and other FLDS leaders mismanaged its assets. The trust has undergone court-ordered reforms, but the justices didn't seem inclined to absolve them of liability.
"Isn't it troubling a trust could just avoid liability by reforming itself?" Justice Lee queried.
Alan Mortenson, Wall's attorney, said the UEP Trust and the FLDS Church were one and the same.
"The UEP Trust was set up to facilitate the doctrine of the FLDS Church, one of those doctrines is marriage, plural marriage and underage marriage," he said.
The UEP has also asked the court to dismiss them from Wall's lawsuit, citing a "secret deal" struck between her and the man she married, Allen Steed. The UEP claims that Wall agreed not to go after him for damages.
"If you take the rape out of this, there is no claim," Shields to the court.
Outside of court, Mortensen said Steed is not the one who forced the marriage.
"I think anyone who had involvement with Warren Jeffs is a victim," he told reporters.
Shields told reporters that if Wall prevails in her claim against the UEP Trust, it could affect families living in Hildale and open the door for more litigation until there's no more money.
"It would devastate the trust," he said. "$40 million is a third of the assets."
Ex-FLDS member Willie Jessop, who was once Jeffs' bodyguard, said the people of Hildale and Colorado City shouldn't have to pay for the conduct of the polygamous church leader.
"Did the red dirt in southern Utah rape her? Or did the actors?" he told FOX 13. "Why aren't they holding the actors responsible and the people actually committing it?"
The Utah Supreme Court took the case under advisement. Until the justices rule, Wall's lawsuit is on hold in lower courts.