North Idaho polygamist sect drawing new scrutiny

The Spokesman-Review, Washington/February 15, 2009

Bonners Ferry, Idaho - In the scenic scenic international region where Idaho's Panhandle meets British Columbia, polygamy is a way of life for hundreds - the open secret that's gone untouched by authorities until now.

The arrests in Canada last month of two fundamentalist Mormon leaders are bringing renewed interest to their polygamous communities near Creston, British Columbia, and loyal followers living just across the border in Idaho's Boundary County.

Winston Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, who now head factions of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Canada, face prison terms if convicted of violating that country's polygamy laws. They are scheduled to enter not-guilty pleas this week in Creston. Their trials likely are months away.

Their polygamist sect has been living in the southeast corner of British Columbia for almost 60 years without legal challenge by Canadian authorities. Two FLDS schools, with some students from Boundary County, get almost $1 million a year from the Canadian government.

The move into north Idaho by FLDS members began in 2003 after a leadership split in the Canadian community.

By conservative estimates, there are at least a half-dozen polygamous families - about 100 men, women and children - living in Boundary County, even though polygamy is banned by the Idaho Constitution. One ex-member says the number in Boundary County could approach 300.

The FLDS community of Bountiful, B.C., is the "polygamy capital of Canada," that country's "dirty secret," where underage marriages and child abuse have gone untouched, according to author and Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham, who has written extensively about the sect.

She and other experts are uncertain why the criminal case was brought with the dawning of 2009, but increased media coverage and public interest appear to have put pressure on politicians.

"There's a greater realization now within the local community around Bountiful that what's going on out there isn't right," Bramham said last week. "For a very long time, people were content to believe that because the young women they saw in town with all the children were happy and healthy, everything was OK. The business people were also content to take Winston Blackmore's word that everything was OK especially since Blackmore and his companies were spending considerable amounts of money in the community."

That changed, Bramham said, with the recent departure of Jane Blackmore, Winston's first and only legal wife. She is a well-respected midwife who has received civic recognition.

"When she left and spoke out about 15- and 16-year-old girls having babies, people listened and paid attention," said Bramham, who wrote about the group in "The Secret Lives of Saints."

Already the landmark criminal case is drawing national attention in Canada, with legal scholars saying it will test that country's polygamy laws.

Blackmore - the father of more than 100 children with at least 19 wives, including three living in Boundary County with their children - says he's being persecuted for practicing his religious freedom.

His attorney says because same-sex marriages are legal in Canada, having multiple wives should be, too.

Others support the view of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who is remembered for saying the government has no business in people's bedrooms.

Former members of the sect, however, say the government has an obligation to investigate and prosecute child neglect and abuse, including reports that teenage girls some as young as 14 are forced into arranged marriages with men 40 and 50 years old.

If Blackmore and Oler are convicted of practicing polygamy in Canada, no one is ready to predict what impact that may have on their followers in Boundary County, where polygamous households are common knowledge.

Elsewhere, there are an estimated 10,000 FLDS members living in the adjoining communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.; in Eldorado, Texas; in Edgemont, S.D.; and in the tiny Colorado communities of Cotopaxi, Florence and Mancos.

Followers adhere to the early-day teachings of the Mormon Church. The only way to heaven, they believe, is if men have multiple "celestial wives," bearing as many children as possible. They don't celebrate Christmas, nor do they condone rock music, comic books, cartoons or makeup.

The teenage daughter of one couple will become the "plural wife" of another man and live in a household where, in some situations, his older daughters call her "mother."

The genetic inbreeding of families has caused numerous babies to be born with an extremely rare and disabling genetic disease and a high infant mortality rate, the Phoenix New Times reported in 2005, citing a study by a pediatric neurologist.

The FLDS is a "racist polygamous cult" and a "hate group," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is credited with dismantling the Aryan Nations headquarters in North Idaho.

The modern-day LDS church renounced polygamy in 1890, allowing Utah to gain statehood. The church denounces the FLDS movement, even though plural marriage theology remains in its "doctrine and covenants." Elder Quentin L. Cook, an apostle and spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said modern-day Mormons "have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect."

Warren Jeffs, the FLDS' now-imprisoned "prophet," has preached to his followers that black people are the descendants of Cain, "cursed with black skin" and selected by God to be the "servants of servants."

FLDS members in Utah are suspected to have ties to the Little Shell Pembina Band of North America, an anti-government, anti-tax extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Winston Blackmore, a Canadian citizen, was in line to lead all the FLDS communities in the United States and Canada following the 2003 death of Rulon Jeffs, who held the position of the church's prophet. But Jeffs' son, Warren Jeffs, pulled a coup, then attempted to excommunicate Blackmore, who had risen to power in the Canadian community.

Meanwhile, the other Canadian FLDS leader, Oler, remained aligned with Warren Jeffs, who made frequent visits to Boundary County and Bountiful.

Jeffs made the FBI's Top 10 fugitive list after being charged in Utah and later convicted of being an accomplice to rape for arranging marriages between underage girls and older men. He faces similar trials in Texas and Arizona.

After Jeffs' arrest, Texas child-welfare authorities last year raided the FLDS Yearning for Zion compound in Eldorado. More than 400 children were taken into protective custody. Of 53 girls ages 14 to 17 taken in the raid, 31 either were pregnant or had children, authorities said.

Most of the children were returned after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state lacked evidence they were in imminent danger of abuse.

Jeffs and five other men still face criminal charges related to sexually abusing underage girls in Texas. Those Texas families have relatives living in Idaho's Panhandle and in nearby Bountiful.

The FLDS leader in North Idaho is Shem Erick Johnson, who is said to have remained loyal to Blackmore after he and Oler split the 1,000 members of the Bountiful community into competing factions, each with its own government-supported school.

Johnson, a 40-year-old Bonners Ferry businessman, is described in a church publication as the FLDS bishop "south of the 49th parallel." He reportedly has four wives. He is said to have taken his fourth wife last March when she turned 18.

Johnson, who lives on a rural estate north of Bonners Ferry, didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview.

But his name turns up in a lot of public records. He owns nine parcels of land in Boundary County, totaling 134 acres. Johnson owns homes on four of the properties, and he appears to have set up a large schoolhouse complex on one of them.

He is also a licensed pilot, Federal Aviation Administration records show, and stores his six-passenger Cessna in a $60,000 hangar he owns on leased land at the Bonners Ferry airport.

Records on file in Washington County, Utah, show a marriage license was issued in 1989 in that FLDS community to Shem Erick Johnson and Margo Wyler. But in a notarized deed filed in December in Kootenai County and signed by Johnson, he claims he is an "unmarried man."

Margo Johnson is manager of Boundary HomeSchool, an Idaho nonprofit that Johnson incorporated in March 2003 in Boundary County, listing himself as the "principle."

Shem Johnson also is listed as the president of S & L Underground, a general contractor licensed to do business in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Arizona.

In public records filed in Arizona last year, Margo Johnson lists herself as the construction company's secretary. She listed the same home address near Bonners Ferry used by Shem Johnson.

In 2005, S & L Underground bought three portable classrooms for $15,000 from the Boundary County School District, other public records show. The classrooms were moved to property Johnson owns, but it's unclear if they are being used as classrooms for FLDS children or for other purposes.

Still other public records show that in the past few years, S & L Underground has gotten millions of dollars in public works contracts, including $1.32 million in water line jobs from the city of Bonners Ferry.

The general contractor also has been awarded bids by the city of Troy, Mont., the Worley, Idaho, highway district and the Idaho Department of Transportation.

In 2005, S & L Underground was awarded a $1.9 million contract by the city of Coeur d'Alene to build a replacement 2 million gallon water reservoir on Tubbs Hill.

About that same time, Johnson rented various houses in Coeur d'Alene and bought a house on Peach Tree Drive in Hayden. Last December, he transferred the deed for that residence to Sarah E. Johnson, identified only as an "unmarried woman."

Some contractors who have lost public works contracts to S & L Underground ask if the company has been successful at underbidding them because Johnson employs members of his church and pays them less.

"It does make me wonder if they are using kids, young men from their church, so they can pay them anything they want," said Charlie Kramer, owner of Kramer Crane and Construction, in Naples, Idaho. His company lost a November 2004 city of Bonners Ferry contract to S & L.

Stephen Boorman, city administrator in Bonners Ferry, said the city, like other governmental entities, is obligated to award its public contracts to the lowest bidder. He and city water officials in Coeur d'Alene praised the quality of work done by Johnson and his S & L crew.

Any contracts involving federal funds would be subject to a federal law that requires workers to be paid certain prevailing wages and subject to "certified payroll" audits.

While the number of FLDS followers in North Idaho appears to be growing, their presence hasn't caught the attention of many residents.

Darrell Kerby, the 57-year-old former mayor of Bonners Ferry, has lived his entire life in that community. He didn't realize polygamists were his neighbors until he recently read Jon Krakauer's book "Under the Banner of Heaven," which details the history of Mormon fundamentalists.

"I had no idea that there was this polygamist group here, and I'm guessing a lot of people still don't know about them," Kerby said.

While mayor, Kerby contacted his counterpart in Creston. The two men, along with Idaho legislative leaders and local officials, met with a Creston-based citizens group, Altering Destiny Through Education.

"Everybody got their eyes opened," he said.

State legislators and the Idaho attorney general's office promised action, but nothing happened.

Kerby said law enforcement is in a confounding situation. Although polygamy is illegal, the Idaho Legislature changed state law a few years ago, no longer recognizing "common law marriages." The only legal marriages in Idaho are those between a man and a woman, backed with a state-issued license. Marriage partners must be 18, or 16 with parental approval.

Investigating potential crimes within the FLDS community is further compounded, Kerby said, because members of the group are secretive, midwives tend to home births, and many infants don't immediately have birth certificates.

Idaho state welfare officials reportedly have investigated potential benefits fraud by FLDS members, but no criminal cases have materialized.

Meanwhile, federal law enforcement agents are watchful for "human trafficking" cases involving teenage girls in the group, transferred from FLDS communities in Canada to those in the United States. But so far, there have been no federal prosecutions in the United States.

In Boundary County, officials and people on the street respond with sheepish grins and shoulder shrugs when asked, "Why aren't authorities investigating the group?"

Rich Stephens, chief deputy of the Boundary County Sheriff's Office, said the law enforcement agency stands ready to investigate and make arrests if a member of the FLDS community comes forward to report a crime.

Boundary County Sheriff Greg Sprungl declined interview requests, as did Boundary County Prosecutor Jack Douglas.

The sheriff and prosecutor are "looking the other way" regarding the practice of polygamy in their community, asserts former sheriff candidate Allen Gemmrig.

"There's a tolerance policy with these polygamists by the sheriff's department," said Gemmrig, who ran an unsuccessful campaign last fall to become sheriff.

Sprungl, the incumbent who was re-elected, "knows or should know there's a huge problem up here with this polygamy cult," Gemmrig said, referring to underage girls involved in arranged marriages. "What he says is, Polygamists? What polygamists?'"

"The way law enforcement works up here is it depends on who you know up here," Gemmrig said. "It's the old boys club. You know - go along, get along."

His wife, Heather, a lifelong resident of Boundary County, agreed.

She said because of the "tolerance policy" in Boundary County, she believes there's a good chance that more FLDS members will move to the county if Blackmore and Oler are convicted and sent to prison.

"They'll come down here because they know they won't get prosecuted," she said. "This is a great place to hide."

Bramham, the author who has written about the Canadian polygamists, says it's "too soon to say what will happen" if Blackmore and Oler are convicted.

Blackmore, she said, is very confident that Canada's anti-polygamy law will not withstand a constitutional challenge. Like the United States, the Canadian Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but there are limits.

"What has never been tried in a Canadian court, however, is whether polygamy is one of those limits," Bramham said.

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