Manti -- A Manti-based apocalyptic church suffered a huge financial setback Monday when a central Utah jury ordered it to repay nearly $300,000 in contributions to two former members.
Kaziah Hancock and Cindy Stewart sued the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, claiming founder and self-proclaimed prophet Jim Harmston duped them out of thousands of dollars and failed to deliver on several promises, including producing Jesus Christ in the flesh.
A jury of four men and four women agreed, granting Hancock $270,000 and Stewart $20,000. After hearing a week of testimony at 6th District Court in Manti, jurors decided that Harmston and the church, also know as TLC, committed fraud, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They dismissed counts of racketeering and unjust enrichment after deliberating part of Friday and Monday morning.
Despite the heavy snow falling on Manti, Hancock after the proceedings said it was still "a beautiful day."
A different reaction occurred inside the courtroom where Harmston hung his head and wife Elaine cried after hearing the verdict.
"The jury missed with this decision," Elaine Harmston said. "I know [Hancock] and I know the situation and this was a case of revenge on her part. It is a sad day for the entire TLC and we'll have a tough time getting through this. God's people have always been persecuted and right now is no different."
Jim Harmston would not comment on the jury's verdict.
Since founding TLC in 1994 after being excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Harmston gave fiery sermons about apocalyptic upheaval, blood atonement, reincarnation, consecration and polygamy to attract members. The 60-year-old former real-estate agent has also been critical of LDS Church leaders he believes have strayed from the teachings of founder Joseph Smith.
TLC currently has about 400 members who meet in a red-brick building on Main Street in Manti, about 125 miles south of Salt Lake City.
During the civil trial, TLC members packed Judge David Mower's courtroom to hear evidence and testimony that dealt mainly with the TLC doctrine of consecration in which a member's wealth is turned over to the church. Members then get back a portion to meet their needs.
Hancock testified that she and her then husband were living on 67 acres in northern Sanpete County in 1996 when the church asked the couple to sell the land and donate most of the more than $200,000 in proceeds. In return, Hancock says, the church promised it would buy the couple property in Manti.
Hancock says she found a site in town and asked the church to pay for it. She testified the church made one payment, and then claimed that Harmston had a revelation forbidding the church to continue payments. Hancock insists that constituted a breach of contract.
Harmston's attorney, Mark Middlemas, told the jury that both women knew how TLC doctrine of consecration worked, and that they gave what they did willingly without expecting anything in return.
Middlemas also presented an audiotape of Hancock speaking on Oct. 17, 1996, after she had given her money to the church.
"I prayed about the Lord's will [concerning consecration] and know exactly what I need to do," Hancock says on the tape. "Jesus Christ himself wants me to have my free agency. Money doesn't mean a damn to me, only in how much fun I can have blessing other peoples' lives with it."
Middlemas plans to appeal the jury's decision. "I don't think that a judgment like this will stand before a panel of three judges in an appeal," he said.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Don Redd, maintains that a contract -- oral and written -- was made between Hancock and TLC. He displayed notes from a meeting in early 1997 talking about specifics of the property agreement.
Redd also says Harmston not only falsified church information but also put leaders of the church under an oath to do the same.
Rodney Cloudis, former member and "apostle" of the church, testified that he and other leaders took an oath of secrecy about church matters. They also were instructed to lie in regards to Harmston's polygamous marriage to a 16-year-old girl, according to Cloudis.
He said Harmston told them, "It's OK to lie for the kingdom of God."