HURRICANE, Utah (AP) -- Relatives of a once promising leader for a polygamous community filed a missing-person report Friday, saying the church elder hasn't been since December and could be dead. Authorities said they would act on the report.
Fred Jessop, a former bishop of the FLDS Church, vanished after being excommunicated by the new leader of the fundamentalist faith, which believes polygamy assures a path to heaven and eternal life.
Jessop, who is 94 or 95, was last seen around town Dec. 20, say several relatives. One of his nephews, Joseph Charles Jessop Jr., told sheriff's deputies on Friday that he fears his uncle is either dead or is being held captive to Warren Jeffs, who took control of the church after the 2002 death of his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs.
Many at the time thought Jessop, known as "Uncle Fred," or another church elder, Louis Barlow, would ascend to church president, but both instead were excommunicated.
Fred Jessop, a widely admired and benevolent church figure who was one of the town's original residents, held considerable sway before his ouster amid a leadership struggle.
Joseph Jessop Jr. said that he has read a letter purported to have been written by his uncle since he was last seen, but he is uncertain about its authenticity. The letter appeared to be written with two different pens and had a dubious signature.
Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Jess Frazier said he would file a missing-person report immediately with the National Crime Information Center. "We don't want to let any more time elapse," he said Friday.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has been "looking at the whole situation out there," the deputy said.
"Out there" refers to the twin border cities where about 9,000 FLDS members reside. Discord within the community and church has grown since early January after Jeffs banished 21 men, many considered to be his rivals, in an apparent effort to consolidate power.
The men are considered to be "repenting from a distance," said Ross Chatwin, who was ordered similarly to repent for soliciting brides without Jeffs' consent. He continues to live in Colorado City and has become a vocal critic of Jeffs and the FLDS.
Cedar City private investigator Sam Brower assisted Joseph Jessop Jr. with filing the missing-person report. Brower has been working for Baltimore, Md., attorney Joanne Suder, who last month filed a lawsuit in 3rd District Court on behalf of a Salt Lake City man who claims he was sodomized as a child by Jeffs and two of Jeffs' brothers.
Brent Jeffs, 21, claims the sexual abuse occurred in the 1980s at Alta Academy, the church's now-closed private school in Salt Lake City, when the boy was 5 and 6 years old.
He is seeking unspecified damages from his uncles and the church, claiming its leaders knew of the "perversity and sexually predatory acts" but did nothing to stop them.
Brent Jeffs also is asking for reimbursement of all money he and his parents paid into church trusts and an order stopping the church leaders from disposing of any assets.
Ron Parker, an attorney for the church, has denied those allegations. On Friday, he called the missing person report "a publicity stunt."
"The person who is filing it has nothing to do with the church," Parker said. "Uncle Fred has a very large family. The family, not outsiders, who continue to be part of Uncle Fred's family, are not doing these things because they know his status and they know where he is."
Parker said members of the church have told him where Jessop is. "Fred Jessop doesn't want that information shared," he said.
Brower, who also assisted the Chatwins in legal action against the United Effort Plan trust, which has tried unsuccessfully to evict them from their home, said he believed he could find Fred Jessop.
"But that's not my job and I'm not paid to do it," he said.
The FLDS church and other polygamist sects have been under investigation in recent years, primarily for allegations of marriage of underage girls, coercion and welfare cheating.
Shurtleff has said he is considering expanding his investigation to include the allegations outlined in Brent Jeffs' lawsuit.
Shurtleff is publicly supporting the efforts of Dr. Dan Fischer, a Midvale dentist and former FLDS polygamist who has set up a foundation to help those who want to leave the sect.
Fischer, who has made a fortune manufacturing dental equipment, has with his group pledged to help some 400 boys ages 13 to 21 who have been banished or excommunicated from the FLDS for such "sins" as talking to girls or watching movies.
Joseph Charles Jessop Jr. said he was kicked out of the church for smoking when he was 22, and has since moved to Arizona, where his father, also banished, now lives with him.
His ouster "was the best blessing I ever got," Jessop said. "It was almost like someone lifted 75 tons off my shoulders."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)