Women in polygamist marriages fight back

Arizona Republic/October 19, 2003
By Judy Nichols

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. He was 33. 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 sent to jail.

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, Ariz., 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.

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

"There are estimates that the (fundamentalist church) has $400 million," she said. "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."

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

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 have 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.

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.

"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 wrote earlier this year in a letter to Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

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 she took her claims to the authorities, but 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.

Marshall 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."

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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