Wives suing to bring end to abuse under polygamy

The Arizona Republic/October 15, 2003
By Judy Nichols

State Sen. Linda Binder (left), R-Lake Havasu City, stands alongside Flora Jessop, a former Colorado City polygamist wife who is joining a class-action suit against the fundamentalist Mormon sect.

Polygamist wives who gather the courage to run from beatings, rapes and illegal "spiritual" unions are beginning to use a time-tested tactic to fight back.

They're starting to sue. For millions.

Mary Ann Kingston, 22, was forced to become the 15th wife of her uncle at age 16. She was a member of a large polygamous group in the Salt Lake City area known as the Kingston clan.

When she tried to leave her husband, her father beat her unconscious. Both men were convicted of crimes and put behind bars.

Two months ago, she filed a civil lawsuit seeking more than $110 million from her immediate family and 242 members of the Kingston clan.

"We're cracking open a whole new avenue of liability for these (polygamists)," said Bill Mark, one of the lawyers working on the Kingston case. "We're trying to punish the order and make an example of them."

A group of former polygamist wives from Colorado City and a similar community in Bountiful, Canada, are preparing a class-action lawsuit seeking an undetermined amount of money from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The fundamentalist church is not connected to the mainstream Mormon Church, which has banned polygamy.

Follow the dollar

Arizona Sen. Linda Binder, who represents the area including Colorado City, said civil suits worked in attacking the Aryan Nation and seeking justice from the Catholic Church.

"You have to cut off the head of the snake," Binder said. "And that's the money. There are estimates that the (fundamentalist church) has $400 million. I'd love to see the victims get that money to educate and relocate the women and children, give them a fresh start in life."

Binder called polygamy "the biggest con game going."

"The men up there are fat and happy, smiling," she said. "They've got all the women they want, all the sex, and the government pays for their children."

Tough road ahead

Despite former polygamist wives' claims of beatings, incest and forced marriages of underage girls, prosecutors say reluctant witnesses and a lack of evidence make criminal charges difficult. Only a handful of criminal cases has been brought against the groups, prompting the women to file in civil court.

Vaughn Marshall, one of four Canadian lawyers preparing the class-action suits, said the Canadian government has declined to prosecute the Bountiful group for polygamy because it believes members will claim it is an attack on their religious beliefs. "When the public law is directed by political decisionmaking, and prosecutions against fringe groups aren't embraced, the last bastion for the victims is civil court," Marshall said.

Rodney Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the polygamist groups in Colorado City; Hildale, Utah; and Bountiful, has said that members of the fundamentalist church deny charges that women or girls are forced into marriage.

"They enter those relationships voluntarily with the consent of their parents and extended family," Parker wrote earlier this year in a letter to Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"Although their model of marriage by revelation runs counter to traditional notions of romantic love and marriage, the model works for them because they have confidence in it," Parker added.

Victims often employ civil actions for money whether criminal prosecutions succeed.

It's what one lawyer calls the "O.J. strategy," referring to O.J. Simpson, acquitted in 1995 of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Simpson was later ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages to the families in a civil verdict in 1997.

Keeping lawsuit narrow

Although civil suits can be used to cripple organizations, lawyers in the polygamy cases say they are focused on justice for their clients, not on stamping out plural marriage.

"Our goal as Mary Ann's attorneys is to achieve payment in recovery for her injuries," Mark said.

According to her lawsuit, Mary Ann Kingston was pulled out of school at 13 and told to prepare for marriage.

At 16, she was forced to marry her 33-year-old uncle. The order teaches that incest is a preferred practice to preserve a pure family bloodline originating from Jesus Christ.

When Mary Ann ran away, her father took her to a remote ranch near the Utah-Idaho line and beat her with his leather belt. She counted 28 lashes before passing out.

Utah succeeded in two criminal actions, one against Mary Ann's father for child abuse and a second against her uncle for incest and unlawful sexual contact with a minor. Her father served six months in jail; her uncle four years in prison.

The civil suit alleges sexual abuse of a child, seduction, assault, battery, false imprisonment, emotional distress, negligence, sham marriage and conspiracy, and claims the order's individuals and businesses are liable.

"I am pursuing this lawsuit with the hope that other young girls and boys in the same position that I was in will see that the leaders of the Kingston organization are not above the law, even though they tell us that they are, that they can be punished for what they do to us and that we can escape and seek recovery for the harm that was done to us," Mary Ann said in a prepared statement when the suit was filed.

The family, through their attorney, Carl Kingston, declined to comment when the suit was filed.

Just the beginning?

Mark said he believes other women may step forward.

"My hope is that as the kitchen heats up, that some others may find a way out," he said.

Flora Jessop, 33, of Phoenix, who will be part of the planned class-action suit in the United States, said she suffered sexual abuse and beatings growing up in Colorado City.

Jessop said that she took her claims to the authorities but that she was returned to her family and locked in a room at her uncle's house for three years. After being given in marriage at 16, she ran.

Attorney Douglas White works with Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group that helps women leave the polygamist communities in Colorado City and Hildale, Utah.

"The typical story is a 14-, 15-, or 16-year-old girl married to a man 40-plus, almost always a third or fourth wife, sometimes with a legal marriage in front of them," White said.

"The first concern, of course, is safety for their children and themselves. Often there is physical abuse to the wife or kids, threats to take the kids and take them across the border so they will never see them again, give them to some other wife.

"Once they're secure, we file a paternity case to establish child support and custody. It's a huge issue."

White said it is difficult to find money for the women because few of the men file tax returns.

"The leaders don't want to have the public see a woman leave with her kids," he said. "They consider it totally demeaning. They believe these are his children by possession."

And a woman who gets out can be an example to others.

"For 110 years, the people in Utah and Arizona have turned a blind eye to polygamy," White said.

Marshall, preparing the class-action suits, said his clients will claim unjust enrichment of the United Effort Plan, or UEP, a church-controlled trust, which holds all property and money gathered by members and may be worth hundreds of millions.

"With the theory of consecration, everything belongs to the priesthood," Marshall said. "Everything is held collectively. If you want to leave, there's no means of getting out what you put in.

"Even first wives who may have a legal marriage have no community property action because the husband has also consecrated everything to the priesthood."

The arrangement is illegal, Marshall contends. "No one is allowed to keep the fruits of someone else's labor."

Winning strategy

The argument of unjust enrichment was used to win a lawsuit involving the UEP earlier this year in Mohave County Superior Court.

In that case, church officials wanted to evict Lenore and Milton Holm from their Colorado City home after Lenore refused to let her 15-year-old daughter marry an older man chosen for her by the church. The land is owned by the UEP, but the Holms built the house.

The judge ruled that evicting the Holms would unjustly enrich the UEP by allowing the trust to keep the house, in which the Holms had invested time, labor and money.

Debbie Palmer, who said she was given in marriage variously to three men from Bountiful beginning at age 15, went to authorities when she thought her third husband was becoming sexually interested in her 13-year-old daughter. She set her house on fire and ran with nothing.

Palmer said she will be part of the suit and expects more than a dozen women to participate.

But some women are scared.

"Some women are terrified to join because of what they consider to be repercussions," she said. "Some can be punished because they have children inside. That's a real serious problem."

Palmer said she has received death threats since her participation in Jon Krakauer's bestselling book on polygamy, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Marshall said he expects to file the initial suit in Canada within two months. He wants to make sure the court understands his case is not an attack on religion.

"We're not trying to put people out of business, just to get the compensation these women deserve," he said. "The sad part is how these children, especially female, are treated. It should be of great concern to any thinking citizen."

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