Religious schism tore Bountiful apart, wife tells Blackmore tax trial

Montreal Gazette/February 1, 2012

VANCOUVER — Marjorie Johnson buried her head in her hands and sobbed quietly on the witness stand during her testimony on Wednesday at the trial of her husband, Winston Blackmore, in Tax Court of Canada.

The agony of the schism that tore their polygamous B.C. community of Bountiful apart in 2002, leaving her and four of her 10 sisters on opposite sides, was the source of her sorrow.

The lone school that the community of about 1,000 people shared turned into a religious battleground between those who remained loyal to Blackmore and those who followed the new bishop of Bountiful in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), James Oler.

Warren Jeffs, considered a usurper by Blackmore, had ordered Oler's followers not to speak to anyone on the Blackmore side, said Johnson.

"All our children were still going to the (Bountiful Elementary-Secondary) School," she told Judge Diane Campbell.

"One day, my fourth-grader came home crying. The teacher said, 'Your parents are banned and they are going to Hell.'

"I told Winston I couldn't take this anymore," she said, adding Blackmore immediately began setting up a second school on Bountiful grounds, the Mormon Hill School, for the children of his followers.

Blackmore is in court appealing a Canada Revenue Agency audit that concluded he under-reported $1.5 million of income over six years between 2000 and 2006. Blackmore claimed his income, like that of his followers, should be spread evenly over the entire community.

Through much of her testimony in the landmark case, Johnson described her day-to-day life in their secretive community about 10 kilometres south of Creston in the southeast corner of B.C.

She was 19 and her sister Sharon was 20 on the day in 1990 they both married Blackmore in their hometown of Hildale, Utah — both of them granddaughters of FLDS patriarch Leroy Johnson.

"We had two mothers and 32 brothers and sisters," Johnson said of the family she left behind.

She lives in an adequate home for her and the 10 children she has with Blackmore, but when she first moved to Canada the blond, fine-featured ex-college student resided in a house with two other women and their seven children.

As years went by, Johnson became the accounts payable clerk for J.R. Blackmore and Sons (JRB), the large logging and milling company owned by Winston and three of his brothers. The office, originally in Creston, later moved to Cranbrook, 100 kilometres to the north.

Her normal work day began at 5:30 a.m., and the van that took her and five co-workers to work would leave at 6:30. In the meantime, she would get her kids ready for school.

They returned at 6 p.m. Sharon would look after Marjorie's children for the three hours each day between the time school was let out and she arrived home from work.

When Jeffs excommunicated Blackmore in 2002, his financial empire came crashing down, as well.

"Warren's side were told not to work (for JRB) anymore," said Johnson. "They all quit — half our crew."

JRB had up to 140 employees, mostly Bountiful members, working at various logging operations around the Kootenays. It went bankrupt in 2005 after losing most of its contracts.

Johnson described Bountiful as an idyllic home for children, where rodeos were organized in the summer and Christmas was celebrated with sleigh rides and great feasts.

But the split changed all that, she said. Family members stopped talking to each other.

"It was really tough on our children," she noted.

Blackmore testified earlier he has 22 wives, one of whom has divorced him and moved away, and at least 67 children.

The trial continues Thursday with the first witnesses for the federal government, which is the respondent in Blackmore's appeal.

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