Woman who left polygamous sect offers refuge to those who want out

The Spokesman-Review/February 22, 2009

When she was just 17, Mary Mackert was forced to marry a man who was 50.

She'd been taught there was nothing else she could do.

So the teenager dropped out of high school and became the sixth of Wilford Alvin Draper's seven wives - carrying out the polygamous doctrine of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

At the time of her arranged marriage in Utah in 1969, Mackert was younger than some of her husband's children. By the time she was 30, she had given birth to five of Draper's 35 children.

She left the polygamous sect in 1984 after she was threatened with a "blood atonement" - having her throat slit - for being a disobedient wife.

But instead of completely distancing herself from the estimated 10,000 members of the FLDS, the 57-year-old woman is now living in their midst in North Idaho.

Mackert leads a quiet, one-woman, nonprofit crusade - hoping to coax FLDS followers away from their polygamist religious beliefs. Not a day goes by, she says, that she doesn't think of her former religion, which preaches a man must live with multiple wives for any of them to get to heaven.

She raises goats - guarded by her two Great Pyrenees dogs - on a modest 20-acre ranch just north of Bonners Ferry, not far from the U.S.-Canadian border. Just across that border, an estimated 1,000 FLDS followers live in a community called Bountiful.

The group's Canadian leaders, Winston Blackmore and James Oler, face felony charges accusing them of violating that country's polygamy laws by having conjugal relations with multiple women. The accused leaders aren't talking, while their attorneys say the case will be a challenge of Canada's religious freedoms.

Already, there are indicators that the case is jarring the 60-year-old FLDS legacy in the southeastern corner of British Columbia and the more-recent migration of followers to adjoining Boundary County, Idaho.

The group's North Idaho leader, general contractor Shem Johnson, of Bonners Ferry, has declined interview requests.

Mackert, now a born-again Christian, hopes the polygamy case in Canada rips open the secrecy shrouding the group, in which teenage girls just beyond puberty are forced to marry and have sex with men old enough to be their grandfathers.

She lived that life.

"I've just got such a heavy burden for these people who think they have to live polygamy to get to heaven," she said on a recent snowy day.

Growing up in polygamy

Mackert didn't have a choice about growing up in a polygamous family. She was born into one.

Her mother, Myra Kunz, and Kunz's sister, Donna, were two of three "celestial wives" given to Clyde Mackert.

Mary Mackert was born in February 1952 in Short Creek, the landmark polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border that became the stronghold of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The modern-day Mormon church denounces polygamy and FLDS followers, who call themselves "fundamentalist Mormons."

After a time in Short Creek in the 1950s, Mackert's father moved one of his wives and their children to Moab, Utah, and Myra and her sister to Grand Junction, Colo., where their children attended public school. Her father split his time among his three families.

In public school, Mackert said, she "had to lie" to teachers and other students, saying that Donna, her aunt, was her mother and that Donna's sons were her brothers.

"The neighbors weren't to know that my mother worked outside the home and Donna was the stay-at-home 'mom,' " she recalled.

As a child, she found the adult relationships in the FLDS community confusing.

"You were scared to talk to anybody for fear you'd say the wrong thing," she said. "I kind of withdrew into my shell. The worry was that if I said the wrong thing, then Daddy would go to jail."

By the fifth grade, Mackert and her two mothers and their children had moved to Salt Lake City, while Clyde Mackert's third wife remained in Moab. Her father would show up about one weekend a month to spend time with his wives Myra and Donna. "We were lucky if we even saw him - the absentee father," Mackert said.

By high school, her large family had moved to Kearns, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City, where they and other FLDS followers held church meetings.

"We lived secretly," she said. "We weren't openly polygamists to our neighbors and stuff. We had a rehearsed story to explain why our dad wasn't home all the time, where he was and what he did for a living."

One of seven wives

The FLDS church had a "law of placing" - a doctrine that prescribed how and when a teenage girl would become a plural wife. Her father got those directions from Leroy Johnson, who at the time was the church's "prophet" - said to be a direct link to God.

"When I submitted to the prophet, he placed me with Bill Draper," Mackert said. "I went and submitted to this arranged marriage.

"I was 17 and he was 50.

"I had his first child when I was 20 and four more by the time I was 30," Mackert said.

Draper had 30 other children and six other wives, mostly living under the same roof or in an adjoining residence. She called the other women "sister wives," who were supposed to be her friends and support system. But it didn't always work that way.

"Every day of my life was a competition for his resources," she said. "There was a lot of back-stabbing and scratching and clawing - emotionally and verbally, not physically.

"There was a lot of competition for his time, his affection and his money."

Their house in downtown Salt Lake was remodeled with bedrooms in the attic and basement, "and we had bathrooms all over the place."

All the children were instructed to call their biological father Uncle Bill "so they wouldn't slip in public and call him 'Dad,' " she said. Her husband didn't want outsiders to know he had multiple wives and almost three dozen children.

"I understood it because I grew up with it," she said. "I thought it was normal for everybody to have more than one mom. It wasn't strange to me at all.

"I thought it odd that those strange kids out in the world only had one mom."

When she turned 30, Mackert learned her mother was leaving her husband because he had sexually abused one of their daughters - Mary's younger sister.

Her father was "brought before the priesthood brethren council," and the church elders ordered him to tell his wives, but he didn't do that, Mackert said.

Neither the church leaders nor the victim reported the molestation to police in Utah.

"It would give polygamy a bad name," she said. "These are supposed to be religious people who don't do things like that, so they kept it a secret."

The ongoing sexual abuse also was kept secret from her mother until her daughter - the victim - told her about it. The outcome, Mackert said, is her sister was banished from the family for making the allegations about her father.

Mackert, meanwhile, remained in her own polygamous marriage, content to be the sixth of seven wives.

Her husband followed a general plan for dividing his time.

"He rotated on nights where he slept," Mackert said, explaining that Friday night "was my night. The other nights I could count on him not being there."

'Blood atonement' for disobedience

By 1984, Mackert said, she'd had enough.

"I went to him and told him that I wanted a home of my own, that I didn't want to live with the rest of the family anymore."

When her husband rejected the idea, citing religious grounds, Mackert responded: "You don't understand. I'm not talking about a 'want.' This is what I need to survive."

After he again refused, Mackert said she walked out the door "to go get a home of my own for me and my children."

But her husband followed and abducted her, she said. "He locked me in my room for a day and threatened a blood atonement" after falsely accusing her of infidelity.

Blood atonement centers on the fundamentalist Mormon belief that "some sins are so great that even the blood of Jesus Christ cannot cover your sin debt," she said. "The only way to be redeemed is to submit to your own demise. ... It's considered a loving act."

Such sinners, according to FLDS doctrine, are supposed to willingly submit to blood-atonement carried out by their "priestly head" - their father, husband or brother.

"They slit your throat from ear-to-ear and disembowel you," Mackert said, "and that's the only way you're redeemed." Because she wouldn't admit to infidelity and submit to blood atonement, her husband believed the act would be futile, so he turned to FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs for guidance.

At the meeting with Jeffs in Sandy, Utah, Mackert said she only got partway through her answer before her husband interrupted and finished answering. "I sat there and thought, 'Women have no voice here. He doesn't want to hear what I have to say.' "

After the meeting, Mackert got in her husband's car for the return trip to Salt Lake. "I started shaking so bad I couldn't hold anything in my hands. I was just trembling."

"I said, 'You let me out of this car or I'm going to jump,' " she recalled. "I didn't want to be called 'Sister Draper' anymore."

He stopped the car and she got out with only a $20 bill she'd hidden in her shoe.

"It was Sept. 2, 1984," she said. "That was the day I left."

Life after polygamy

With a case of documented depression, Mackert spent the winter with a friend. She found a Salt Lake City attorney who agreed to represent her without charge in a 1985 court fight to gain custody of her five boys. She eventually won that fight.

Mackert and the children's father were never legally married with a state-issued marriage license, but the court recognized them as the biological parents. Her ex-husband died a few years later. Alone with her children for the first time, Mackert went to school, got her high school equivalency degree, landed a secretarial job and enrolled at Salt Lake Community College. With help from food stamps and a displaced-homemaker program, she went on to get a business management degree from the University of Utah in 1991.

There weren't a lot of job openings for a 40-year-old single mother with a college degree but no experience, she said. So she worked as a secretary in Salt Lake before being hired by a company that installed phone systems.

Her search for new religious roots, meanwhile, led her to the Baptist church.

She raised her five boys until they moved out on their own. Her oldest remains in the FLDS ranks. "I made him a soldier in the army, and I regret it to this day," she said.

In her spare time, Mackert began writing "The Sixth of Seven Wives: Escape from Modern Day Polygamy," a self-published book that came out in 2000. She sold hundreds of copies.

The undertaking was not only therapeutic, she said, but it also led to invitations to speak to church groups throughout the West. In the summer of 2003, she was invited to speak to a Baptist congregation in Creston, B.C., where church leaders embarked on a plan to use education to counter the growing FLDS presence in that community.

"No one talks about these kids who grow up in these communities, like I did, and have no choice," she said.

On her way back to Utah, Mackert said, she got a telephone call warning her that there were men at a restaurant in Creston, driving vehicles with Utah plates, overheard making death threats toward her.

"I kept praying and asking God to send someone" to offer a ministry countering the views of the FLDS, she said. "At that point, my children were raised, and I felt God said to me, 'What about you?' "

Mackert said she wasn't deterred by the threats and loved the beauty of rural Boundary County. She had begun caring for her single, elderly mother before the two decided to move from Utah to North Idaho in September 2004, knowing they'd be in the middle of another FLDS community.

Mackert formed a nonprofit ministry and sought modest financial support from individual churches. "I went out to raise financial support because I was without a job, and I got churches to back me. They donate money every month so I can be here, doing what I'm doing."

She befriends FLDS members living in Boundary County and nearby British Columbia, offering to be a refuge for anyone who wants to leave what she now considers a "religious cult."

She talked briefly about her relationship with one young plural wife who already has several children and appears to be struggling with the lifestyle and belief system she was raised in. The woman has done things to defy her husband and the church's strict dogma, but she remains locked in the FLDS community.

Mackert reached out to pet Gideon, one of her Great Pyrenees guard dogs, and said, "I just want to be here for her and any other women who think the time has come to break away."

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