Bountiful woman describes life in her 'Eden'

The Toronto Star/January 27, 2011

She met her husband for the first time half-an-hour before they married.

By that evening, they were driving the 18-hour trip up to the Canadian border where she entered as a visitor, claiming to be staying with friends. No, no, not a lie.

"My husband was my friend."

She had just turned 17 and was wife No. 3 to a man "in his late 30s or early 40s," a fellow of high standing in Bountiful, the secretive hamlet populated almost exclusively by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway polygamous Mormon sect in the British Columbia interior.

Within six months, and still a newlywed bride by most people's reckoning, the household expanded again. Her husband fetched another wife from the U.S. This girl was 15 and, upon arrival in Bountiful, enrolled as a Grade 9 student at the local school, which is funded by FLDS.

Wife No. 3 - known as Witness No. 4 in court- hadn't been forewarned about the newest "sister-wife" but claims not to have been troubled when the teenager showed up at her door, as indeed she had shown up at the same door earlier, the newcomer.

"I was told after. But I knew of her before."

They had been acquainted in the town whence the females originated - probably, though not specified in court, an FLDS backwater in Utah.

Wife No. 4 would have a baby by age 17. Wife No. 3 had her child within two years of marriage. There are now 24 children in the family, five wives and one husband.

Only the first of these marriages is considered legal in Canada. But legality, as a civil concept, has nothing to do with domestic structure in Bountiful. It's a religious mandate that justifies plural wives, despite the fact the mainstream Mormon Church renounced polygamy more than a century ago. On this side of the border, a B.C. Supreme Court judge is examining the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy laws in a landmark "reference" case. Three Bountiful wives - their identities scrupulously protected by a publication ban - have voluntarily taken the stand over the past two days to describe, and justify, their sorority-spouse arrangement.

Wife No. 3, now 24, is adamant that she found nothing objectionable or sexually abusive about a young teen joining the ménage and having carnal relations with a man old enough to be her father.

"If I felt like someone was doing something wrong, or doing harm, I would report that to the authorities," she testified before Justice Robert Bauman, her evidence heard by video link in a separate courtroom, though her face was never shown on the monitor.

Craig Jones, a lawyer representing the B.C. attorney general, asked: "You never reported to the police or the authorities the 15-year-old's situation?"

She had not.

Jones: "You consider it God's will that the 15-year-old should marry her 40-something husband, is that correct?"

Wife No. 3: "It was a revelation from God, yes."

Indeed, a similar revelation had come upon her, when she had earlier approached her father and asked to be assigned a husband. It is the duty of females to marry because entry into the "Celestial Kingdom of Heaven" can be obtained only on the coattails of a righteous husband.

"I wanted to be married," she'd explained to Robert Wickett, the "amicus" lawyer appointed to represent the FLDS. "I had a dream. I saw his face."

Her father, she said, had inquired whether she was certain about being ready for marriage, and she was. "Keep praying about it and we'll see what happens," he advised.

Three months later, the designated husband was introduced to her on their wedding day. And oh, miracle of miracles, "it happened to be the same person I'd seen in my dream!"

Not entirely a figment of her imagination come to real life, however; the man, a senior member of the cult, had been familiar to her, at least as someone she'd occasionally seen on his visits from Canada.

The sect's "Prophet" had endorsed the marriage. This self-proclaimed prophet is Warren Jeffs, a man sentenced to 10 years in prison in Utah in 2007 as an accomplice to rape for performing marriages between adult males and underage girls. The conviction was reversed last July because of incorrect jury instructions but Jeffs has been extradited to Texas, where he's now facing charges of bigamy and sexual assault.

Religious persecution, claim the FLDS practitioners. These are men and women who mostly subsist at poverty level, barely making ends meet in raising huge broods of children, while financing legal bills racked up by their leaders. The FLDS, as of 2008, has allegedly ceased conducting underage marriages.

Wife No. 3 - and the two other women who've testified - are clearly anomalies within their community. All have some level of post-secondary education. This woman told court on Wednesday that she is taking business courses at a college about an hour from Bountiful, leaving her own child with her sister-wives and returning the sitting-favour on weekends. She hopes to become an accountant. Other women in the community have trained as either school teachers or midwives.

Wife No. 3 painted a picture of domestic coziness. "We're all in one house. We have meetings every night and talk over the day's events. If there's something we need to change, we'll discuss it. We play basketball and rollerskate with our children."

They do not, apparently, discuss such intimate matters as sex or birth control. Neither Wife No. 3 nor her sister-wives, for example, had any conversation with incoming Wife No. 4 about the teen's sexual obligations with their shared husband or whether she had the right to refuse him sex.

"That's quite a private matter," she said, palpably recoiling from the cross-examination query.

Sex between a 40-ish man and a 15-year-old girl, of course, is statutory rape. In Canada, the age of consent is 16, although there are exceptions, generally regarding same-age sex partners.

The quite extensive anonymity provisions afforded to these Bountiful wives - a lure for their participation in the hearing - protects them, and their husbands, from subsequent prosecution.

Witness No. 4, and her younger sister-wife, remain here on student visas.

"If I could no longer have (student) status or they didn't grant me a work visa," in the future, "I would go back," she said.

But everything's rosy for now, even if she must suffer the "wild and rowdy world" outside Bountiful to attend college classes. She has knowledge of that world but doesn't want to live in it, prefers the insularity of her cult town.

Bountiful is her Eden. How much better it would be, though, if she weren't viewed as a freak and if polygamy were decriminalized, she said.

"We wouldn't have the outside world peering down our necks. We wouldn't be ridiculed."

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