When Incest Becomes a Religious Tenet

Practice sets 1,000-member Kingston clan apart from other Utah polygamous groups

The Salt Lake Tribune, April 25, 1999
By Greg Burton

On a dilapidated dairy farm at the end of Redwood Road in Woods Cross, the late John Ortell Kingston, would-be Utah dairy king and self-anointed leader of one of the largest polygamous clans in America, fancied himself a geneticist.

In breeding stock, he looked for high milk production. At home, the desired traits were his own. "My father experimented inbreeding with his cattle and then he turned to his children," says Connie Rugg, one of John Ortell's estimated 65 children and one of a handful of Kingston relatives who have fled the clan. Faced with the forced marriage to an uncle, Rugg left the Kingstons.

"All my life, my family told me I had to marry a Kingston," says Rugg. "I could choose, but it had to be a brother, uncle or cousin."

While the clan shares many of the beliefs of other polygamous groups in Utah, incest, for many of the Kingston leaders, is their indelible difference.

Incest draws members inward. Fear of exposure fosters a culture of distrust, some of which is directed at members who work in Kingston-owned businesses, live in Kingston-owned homes and worship in Kingston churches.

Many Kingstons -- even those who share preferred lineage from John Ortell and LaDonna Peterson, the second of his 13 wives -- live in run-down shacks at a coal yard, above warehouses near the dairy farm and in ramshackle apartment buildings and trailers.

If female, they are married off to the few, powerful prominent males: incest is the fate of many teen-age girls. If male, some of these same "worker bees" marry only once.

"My father manipulated and controlled people," Rugg says. "He wanted to control his children and grandchildren through genetics. He believed he had superior bloodlines."

Kingston clan leaders declined requests, including letters by registered mail, to comment on this story.

The church sprang from the ideas of John Ortell Kingston's father and was founded by his brother, Charles Elden Kingston, in 1935. John Ortell Kingston was the first Kingston to experiment with incest, marrying and bearing children with two half-sisters and two nieces, according to numerous ex-members of the clan.

Ex-members' claims of incest are bolstered by court records claiming John Ortell "failed either to support or acknowledge" three children by his niece, (Susan) Mary Gustafson. In an effort to recoup $15,679 in welfare, the Utah Department of Social Services filed an order declaring John Ortell the father of three of Gustafson's children.

John and Charles' brother, Merlin Barnum Kingston, married and had children with four nieces and a half-sister, say ex-members, including one of his own daughters. At least six of Merlin's incestuously conceived children in turn married half-siblings, couplings that subsequently produced children with various deformities, says Rowenna Erickson, an ex-member who left her polygamous husband.

"It makes you sick; it turns your stomach," she says. "And yet nobody wants to do anything about it. Nobody, from the police to [Utah] Gov. [Mike] Leavitt, cares that these children are abused from conception to marriage."

Today, six sons and two daughters of John Ortell and LaDonna have married at least 20 half-sisters, nieces and first cousins, giving birth to a family tree that twists and tangles, and, at times, withers with children born of genetic deficiencies.

A seventh son, Hyrum Dalton Kingston, is a polygamist but has not married incestuously, according to ex-members.

Although it is a felony under Utah law for close relatives to have sex, only one Kingston -- John and LaDonna's fifth son, David Ortell -- has been criminally charged with incest.

Last year, a 16-year-old daughter of John Daniel Kingston was forced to marry her uncle, David Ortell Kingston, criminal charges allege. In a secret church ceremony conducted on the 15th day of the month, the girl became her uncle's 15th wife. He later gave the girl a ring with 15 diamonds, she testified.

He sent her to live in a coal yard with other polygamous wives and their many children in South Salt Lake, visiting her rarely and usually only to have sex, she testified.

In May, the girl said she was belt-whipped by her father inside a Kingston-owned barn in Box Elder County for fleeing the marriage, and was abandoned in the home of another of John Daniel's wives. The girl's father and mother, Susan Nelson (one of John Daniel's many wives) are half-sister and brother. They purportedly have 10 children, the girl told police.

Her subsequent recounting of the ordeal is the centerpiece of a pending trial on sex abuse and incest against her uncle, David. Her father pleaded no contest April 21 to third-degree felony child abuse and faces zero to five years in prison at his June sentencing.

Salt Lake County prosecutors' initial charge of incest against David Ortell Kingston was kindled by the victim's story of manipulation and molestation.

The clan's other numerous incestuous couplings among consenting adults, though, present a troubling scenario for law enforcement: these are crimes of a sexual nature committed in private in a closed society.

Farm Roots of Incest: Marriages in the Kingston clan must be sanctioned by Paul Kingston, current head of the church, although ex-members say Paul's brothers, Daniel, David and Jesse, exert influence over who marries whom.

The same right of marriage approval was wielded by John Ortell Kingston, who began the incestuous lineage. While building his polygamous empire, John Ortell raised pigeons and Holsteins, prized black-and-white milk cows.

"I know people who bought livestock from them because they had quality animals," says a federal investigator. "Usually the women did the milking. When an inspector would show up they'd disappear and pretty soon two men would show up."

Today, the Kingston dairy is a shamble of littered fields, slouching homes and a gray-brown barn where a few cows still roam.

It was here, on the flat hay fields that stretch from the edge of Woods Cross to the crusty shores of the Great Salt Lake, that John Ortell Kingston studied the genetics of in-line breeding.

"It would have been unusual if he wasn't using artificial insemination in his herd, and by virtue of that, was probably using semen from some bulls that had been inbred," says Dennis Green, a professor of beef cattle genetics at Colorado State University.

"My guess is this man had used some of these inbreeding practices in his herd so he was probably in the camp that believed superior genetics could be propagated in a particular line," Green says. "The downside is that if you don't start with good genetics, and if there is baggage in the genes of the individual, inbreeding will uncover that baggage. When you pair up those undesirable genes, something strange will pop out."

Among the polygamous Kingstons, a number of children have been born with birth defects, among them one born with two vaginas and two uteruses but no vaginal or bowel opening. Outwardly, she appeared to have no sex organs. The girl, born to John Ortell and Isabell Johnson, was not the product of an incestuous marriage. Family members attribute the defects to the advanced ages of the mother and father -- he was 64, she was 45.

"My mother should not have produced another baby," says Rugg, also Isabell and John Ortell's daughter and the baby's full sister. "Her body tried to miscarry many, many times."

The baby, delivered at Johnson's home in 1983, was taken to Primary Children's Medical Center. Blood tests showed the infant and 25 other children from numerous women were fathered by the same man, leading to one of the largest welfare fraud-settlements in Utah history.

John Ortell Kingston paid the $200,000 settlement, but denied paternity. The settlement was reached after prosecutors obtained a judge's order to sample John Ortell's DNA to compare with the 26 children's.

Now 16, Rugg's sister was married to and subsequently left one of her half-brother's sons.

Another of Rugg's full sisters, Andrea Johnson, died in 1992 of complications of pre-eclampsia, a condition of pregnancy that was not treated until after the young girl, swollen with toxic fluid, was rushed to the emergency unit at University Hospital. The baby survived, but has cerebral palsy.

On Johnson's death certificate, attending physician James B. Burns wrote 15-year-old Andrea must have exhibited signs of hypertension "at least two weeks" before her death.

Rugg says the group feared taking Andrea to the hospital because members did not want to explain the child's troubling paternity.

Andrea's son, now 7, lives with his father, Jason Kingston -- Andrea's half-brother -- and Rosalind, his niece.

Genetics of Incest: Pre-eclampsia is a condition that can be traced genetically from one generation to the next and is prevalent among some Kingstons, Rugg says.

Several Kingston offspring of incestuous couplings also have been born without fingernails, a disease that could be linked to a number of genetically caused abnormalities, although an exact diagnosis is impossible without closer study of medical records. Since most Kingston children are born in homes under the scrutiny of trusted and secretive family midwives or clan leaders, documentation of medical abnormalities is rare, but not unprecedented.

In 1996, the now 31-year-old Kingston mother of two slow-growing children sought explanations at Primary Children's Medical Center. Initially, she tried to conceal her marital relationship.

"I didn't dare talk about it," she says. Eventually, she admitted she had married her half-brother and given birth to three children.

Two years later, a pair of geneticists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., flew to Utah where they hoped to stage a seminar for Kingston family members about the dangers of incest and birth defects, and, presumably, gain permission to study the clan.

Two minor members of the clan attended the NIH seminar, conducted in a Woods Cross hotel room -- not far from the Kingston dairy. Disappointed more family members did not attend, the scientists left.

"I tried to get people to come, but nobody would listen," says the mother, who left the group and her marriage after her sons were diagnosed with dwarfism. She says her parents, Merlin Barnum Kingston (John Ortell's brother) and Joyce Fransden, were uncle and niece. And her ex-husband's parents, Merlin and Carolyn Kingston, were uncle and niece.

"I knew I would have to marry my [half-] brother ever since I was 12," says the woman. The couple had lived together since the age of 7, when the mother of the woman's half-brother died.

The rate at which Kingstons marry each other is "frightening," she says. "It's a bomb that's going to explode."

Her half-brother is still married to another half-sister (whose parents also were half-sister and brother) and are still members of the Kingston's order.

Other possible genetic traits include: microcephaly, a malformation of the skull in which the infant has a small head (ex-members say two children with microcephaly have died and eight others are institutionalized); blindness; spina bifida; Down syndrome; kidney disease and abnormal leg and arm joints.

While none of these can positively be linked to incest without DNA testing, geneticists say most of the conditions are exacerbated by incest.

Some genes linked to conditions like microcephaly and dwarfism are "autosomal recessive," and are found among the 22-linked pairs of chromosomes that do not include the X and Y sex chromosomes, says Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah's Eccles Human Genetics Institute, a leading genetics research center.

"You don't want to jump to the conclusion and say all of these are the result of inbreeding," he says. "But just on general principles, the offspring of uncle-niece, or half-siblings have an elevated level of genetic disease. There is no doubt about that at all. So when you see all of these diseases occurring in the children, it's possible some are the result of inbreeding."

Of all the arguments against incest, says Jorde, the likelihood that genetic abnormalities will be passed to succeeding generations is the most persuasive.

"We do know there are biological hazards. A fourth to half of father-daughter and brother-sister offspring have mental or physical deficiencies. It gets pretty bleak when it gets that close."

Global Incest: Worldwide, mating among first cousins is somewhat common and sometimes encouraged. First-cousin mating doubles the chances that genetic abnormalities will be passed along. Roughly 3 to 4 percent of children from couples who aren't relatives are born with genetic defects. The rate of genetic birth defects for first cousins is 6 to 8 percent.

Stillbirths and infant deaths also are much more likely when blood relatives mate. A Norwegian study published in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health found the risk of stillbirths and infant deaths was at least 70 percent greater when parents were first cousins rather than unrelated.

Yet in many countries, the study noted, more than one-fourth of parents are related by blood. Those countries include Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait.

Including Utah, 37 states outlaw first-cousin marriage. The 1996 Utah Legislature approved first-cousin marriages, only after age 65, or age 55 if the couple cannot conceive children.

It is possible that positive genetic traits could be passed along through human inbreeding. That apparently was John Ortell Kingston's intent, although most studies of first-cousin mating show their offspring test lower on IQ exams, Jorde says.

There is too little empirical data of uncle-niece, half-brother/half-sister mating to draw firm conclusions about the IQ, survival rates, birth defects or longevity of their offspring, he says.

"So often when you have an uncle-niece, or half-brother-sister, you have a situation where abuse is going on," Jorde says. "And when you talk about the public interest, you have to consider who pays for the consequences. If these couples are . . . mating in a way that increases genetic diseases, that the public ends up supporting, it becomes a matter of public interest."

The Kingstons are among a small number of family groups in the world who marry closer than first cousins on a regular basis.

"Incest as a policy or routine practice is rare," says Melvin Williams, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and a leading expert in the study of kinship systems.

Many cultures, he says, marry outside the family in order to attract the wealth of a neighboring family or to promote alliances among warring factions.

While not discounting the prevalence of genetic anomalies, Williams says modern society's aversion to incest is, to a large extent, arbitrary and prudish. A brother's aversion to courting his sister has more to do with romance than social stigma.

"It's hard to fantasize about someone if you grew up watching them go to the bathroom," Williams says. "Living with them makes them unattractive as living partners. Humans also have decided not to [commit incest] in order to distinguish themselves from other animals. Humans put a grave prohibition on incest."

Social ostracism, he adds, is not necessarily a good thing.

Of the Kingstons, Williams says: "There is not much you can do about them. The notoriety will just make them zoo specimens. People are always trying to find people who are inferior and brand them as such."

Still, if children are caught up in an abusive or incestuous situation, Williams would encourage policing. "Children should not be victims of such programs."

A Secretive Refrain: On Bountiful's bench, in a wooded and fenced complex that overlooks the Great Salt Lake, Mary Gustafson, John Ortell's niece and third wife, lives with some of her children, one who is legally blind, and grandchildren.

One recent morning she defended her complicity in arranging her daughters' marriages to their half-brothers, sons of John Ortell and LaDonna.

"Those boys are the most moral, upstanding and wonderful people I know," she said, clutching a grandchild to her thin hip. "Most of what you print is lies, lies, lies."

From the porch of Gustafson's home, there is a view of fields where cattle and ponies graze, and the remnants of the Kingston dairy.

John Ortell, who died in 1987, never met the grandchild Gustafson was holding. Or two more that scampered around her feet as she talked, pleasantly but guardedly, about the Kingston clan.

When asked, a little boy and girl at the home acknowledged who their mother is.

Then, as generations of polygamous Kingston children have been taught, they demurred to questions about their father. Naming a father could expose the truth, unveil secrets of paternity and subject the clan to further scrutiny from those who don't approve of incest.

"We don't have a dad," the little boy said. Then he scooted away, smiling, aboard a plastic toy car, his feet smacking the sidewalk

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