Polygamy Foes May Be Tackling Another Nemesis: Renewed Public Apathy

The Salt Lake Tribune, July 12, 1999
By Ray Rivera

Anthropologists call for it to be studied, not persecuted. Opponents say ban it, this time for real. And adherents respond, just let us be. Whatever feeling the practice of polygamy elicits, one thing is certain -- it remains an inseparable part of Utah's makeup, as immovable as the salty deserts, red sandstone cliffs and majestic Wasatch peaks.

The highly publicized prosecutions of John Daniel Kingston and David Ortell Kingston, though creating an emotionally charged forum for detractors, did little to change that.

David Ortell was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison Friday for incest and unlawful sexual conduct with his 16-year-old niece, who was also his 15th wife. And John Daniel, the girl's father, pleaded no contest in May to child abuse and is serving 28 weeks in Box Elder County jail, perhaps only coincidentally one week for every lash he gave his daughter when she attempted to flee her arranged marriage. The brothers are prominent members of the reclusive Kingston clan, which is offically known as the Latter Day Church of Christ, and is the most affluent of Utah's half-dozen organized polygamous sects.

Now that the trials have concluded, opponents of plural marriage have a new foe -- apathy. Their task is clear: keep polygamy in the spotlight or risk it slinking back into the shadows, where it had lain unfettered since the last big government crackdown more than 45 years ago.

"We have many new techniques and capabilities of disseminating information," said Rowenna Erickson, cofounder of Tapestry of Polygamy, a group out to end plural marriage.

Erickson, a former Kingston bride, believes Tapestry's recent alliance with the National Organization for Women will only boost its efforts.

"It's gaining momentum, it's just beginning," she said.

History stands against her.

Mormon settlers brought the practice across the plains 150 years ago seeking to escape persecution. But in the late 19th century, Utah enacted a prohibition on polygamy -- the price of statehood. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did likewise in 1890 in what is known as the Woodruff Manifesto.

But polygamy hasn't been actively prosecuted since the infamous 1953 Short Creek raid in what are now the polygamous twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

It was called "Operation Seagull" and funded with a secret $50,000 appropriation supposedly for grasshopper control. The raid quickly deteriorated into a public relations disaster: Newsreels showed photos of children being yanked from their parents, and women went on welfare because their husbands were jailed.

The experience shook the will of prosecutors to go after what Abraham Lincoln once called, along with slavery, the "twin relics of barbarism."

Since then, polygamy has captured the public's curiosity every few years -- only to slide again into the routine.

In 1977, the violent and secretive polygamous group, Church of the Lamb of God, led by Ervil LeBaron, went on a killing spree, murdering several dissident followers and rivals.

Two years later, John Singer, patriarch of his own Summit County clan, created a stir when he refused to send his children to public school. Law officers attempting to serve a warrant shot him to death when he pulled a gun on them.

Nine years later, believing a confrontation with police would precipitate John Singer's resurrection, his son-in-law Addam Swapp bombed the LDS Kamas Stake Center near the Singer-Swapp compound. A 13-day siege of the compound ended with the death of one officer, Utah Corrections Lt. Fred House, and the capture of Swapp and his family.

But the Kingston trials were different because this was the first time the public spotlight was so sharply focused on the women and children -- rather than the patriarchs -- in polygamous families.

Tapestry and NOW believe David Ortell's severe sentence -- the maximum allowed for his two third-degree felony convictions -- will be a watershed event for the anti-polygamy movement. "This decision will bring a flood of women out of these groups that have just been hedging because they thought these people would get a slap on the wrist and would be back to assault and beat them," said Charles Castle of NOW.

The turbulence began on a Sunday May morning 14 months ago. That was when a bruised and battered 16-year-old girl, who had been yanked out of junior high school and forced to marry an uncle twice her age, marched away from an isolated ranch near the Idaho-Utah border where authorities say the Kingstons run a sort of re-education camp for out-of-favor wives and children.

Her father had driven her there the night before from her home in Sandy, backhanding her along the way. Then, in a large brown barn with a giant steer painted on the side, he removed his wide leather belt and beat her, leaving welts and bruises across her back, buttocks and thighs.

"He said he was going to give me 10 licks for every wrongdoing," the girl tearfully told a judge earlier this year.

Walking nearly six miles along a dirt road, the girl arrived at a truck stop in the small farming town of Plymouth, grabbed a pay phone, and dialed 911.

It was an enormous step for the girl: Leaving the marriage bed of her uncle also meant giving up all the friends and loved ones with whom she was raised.

"I didn't want to live the lifestyle they did, but I didn't know how to do that and not lose my family and all my friends," said the girl, now 17 and living in foster care.

Prosecutors downplayed the polygamy aspect of the cases that followed against John Daniel and his brother, not charging either for the illegal practice and seldom mentioning it in court proceedings.

But because of who the accused were, and because of what they represented -- and because this state is so tightly bound with the history of the Mormon Church -- the charges struck a nerve with state leaders, particularly as they prepared to welcome the world to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Gov. Mike Leavitt, a great-grandson of a polygamist, made global headlines and sparked a firestorm of criticism when he suggested -- wrongly, he admitted later -- that plural marriage may enjoy the First Amendment's religious protection.

And Atty. Gen. Jan Graham promised vigorous investigation of crimes within polygamous communities -- but not the practice itself.

The public glare even caused other polygamous leaders to make rare appeals to defend their practice.

"We believe in free agency," Owen Allred, the 84-year-old leader of the 5,000-member Apostolic United Brethren, told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time. "If my daughter doesn't want to stay in the group, she has free will. She has the right to do what she chooses."

The Kingston Clan girl's charges came on the heels of a Tribune investigation detailing the excessive reliance on welfare by polygamist families in Hildale and Colorado City, where virtually all private land is owned by a polygamous church called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints.

But by January the subject that was on everybody's lips six months before had virtually vanished -- largely overshadowed by the Olympic bribery scandal.

Even at the height of the attention, Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said legislators never thought polygamy was a big deal. They proved that when they turned down a bill that would have given the AG's office $750,000 to investigate abuses within closed societies.

Interest in the Kingstons continues, though with decreasing fervor. In the last 14 months, the group has suffered intense scrutiny from the media -- and to a much lesser extent from state investigators -- for everything from the way they run their multi-million dollar business empire, where finances are intertwined with their tax-exempt church, to the squalid conditions in which some of them raise their children.

The group has remained silent, politely turning down repeated requests for interviews. But they have felt the impact. David Ortell's defense attorney said the 33-year-old accountant and his family have received death threats and had fires set to their front lawn and a van.

Tapestry has continued its anti-polygamy movement despite worries that it could drive practitioners deeper into seclusion, making them harder to investigate.

Tapestry also risks public backlash, the same kind that turned popular sentiment after the Short Creek raid of 1953. "We've already been called a witchhunt," said Tapestry executive director Carmen Thompson.

After all, many polygamous homes offer nurturing, caring environments for women and children, according to Utah anthropologist Janet Bennion.

Bennion, who spent parts of five years living with Allred communities in Salt Lake Valley and Pinesdale, Mont., told The Tribune she witnessed little of what detractors claim is widespread abuse of women and children.

But Tapestry members discount Bennion's findings and say they're willing to accept any risks that come with their fight.

"Getting rid of abuse may appear to some to be a witchhunt," Thompson said, "but this is a crime, and we're not going to stop until polygamy is stopped."

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