The Battle for Bountiful

Religion; Polygamy, radicalism and a fight for hearts and minds: a Mormon sect's power struggle

Macleans/December 13, 2004
By Ken MacQueen

Trouble brews in Bountiful, a community of fundamentalist Mormons scattered about the rolling valley lands south of Creston, B.C., a town best known for its popular Kokanee beer. The commune's founders moved almost 60 years ago from Alberta, seeking the splendid isolation of the Kootenay Mountains to live "the Principle" -- the practice of polygamy. The belief that men must accumulate "plural wives" to achieve salvation is a central tenet of their faith.

It estranged them and thousands more in the United States from the mainstream Mormon Church, which ended the practice in 1890. Polygamy also violates laws in both Canada and the U.S.

Still, the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), to which all of Bountiful's estimated 1,000 fundamentalists once belonged, has grown into a multi-million-dollar corporation, with about 10,000 members in the church-controlled twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and mysterious new enclaves under construction in Texas and Colorado. But the fundamentalists also inhabit a world of legal trouble. Allegations of child abuse, forced marriages of underage girls, and of trafficking "wives" across the Canada-U.S. border have triggered investigations in B.C. and Utah. And Bountiful is also torn by a battle for spiritual and economic control between two powerful men, each claiming the loyalty of about half of the commune's members. Warren Jeffs, 49, claimed the "prophesy" of the FLDS in 2002 after the death of his father and former leader, Rulon Jeffs, who had been debilitated by a stroke. Insiders say Warren used his father's weakened state to position himself as leader by deposing a popular potential rival: Winston Blackmore, 48, a millionaire businessman who was bishop of Bountiful.

Jeffs exerts godlike control over his followers. His increasingly erratic message is laced with blatant racism and apocalyptic visions -- all the more disturbing since he now runs Bountiful's provincially funded school. Blackmore, meanwhile, who also claims the loyalty of a growing number of disaffected U.S. fundamentalists, says, "There is a very real potential for violence, and not on our part." Those under Jeffs's sway, he told Maclean's, "could do anything, and would do anything -- and I mean anything -- they thought they were supposed to do."

Trouble in Texas

Since the arrival late last winter of the "marrying people," as one of Eldorado's more eccentric citizens calls them, there's plenty to talk about in this tiny west Texas town, if not much to see. The polygamous enclave of the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch is marked by nothing more than a "No Trespassing" sign on a locked gate off a country road. A long lane undulates over rocky rangeland, past stunted mesquite and juniper trees and ubiquitous prickly pear cactus. There may be 50 fundamentalists in there, says the local sheriff; or 200, says the local newspaper editor. They were chosen by the prophet -- Jeffs -- from the enclave on the Arizona-Utah border and likely also from Bountiful, where believers have contributed truckloads of lumber and prefabricated buildings to the cause.

Jeffs never gives interviews, leaving others to speculate. Is he building a refuge from legal troubles, or preparing the most faithful for the fiery apocalypse he has long predicted? The church's lawyer, Rod Parker of Salt Lake City, says the group hasn't offered a reason for moving into Texas (there is also a second new enclave near Mancos, Colo.). He speculates the leadership is seeking more freedom and privacy. "I think they were looking for a place where they had more control over the comings and goings of people, especially from the outside," Parker says. He adds that public concerns whipped up by recent church activities are "over the top." Still, the goings-on, beyond a guard hut barely visible on the horizon, are the stuff of worry and fear.

The 1,900 folks of Eldorado are annoyed and offended that this group of polygamists -- the women dressed in pioneer garb, as if they've stepped off a wagon train -- won't make eye contact, let alone acknowledge a "how y'all doin?" They've certainly shown no need of flowers, jewellery or small talk, all available in abundance in Cathy Niblett's shop in the business district. "Texas hospitality is worldwide known," she says. "We're courteous and expect the same."

Texas law enforcement officials are watching, too. There's talk of a kidnapped Canadian woman and her three sons out there, of forced marriages amounting to child rape, of obedience unto death to the prophet. Jeffs is under investigation by the Utah attorney general's office and faces civil suits in the state, including one that alleges he and two brothers repeatedly sodomized a nephew -- allegations Jeffs has denied. Jeffs has avoided being served with a summons by shuttling among his enclaves, says Sam Brower, a private investigator who has tracked Jeffs for months on behalf of the law firm mounting the civil cases.

Brower isn't alone in fearing that attempts to apprehend Jeffs may trigger a dangerous reaction. "Backed into a corner, there is the potential for all kinds of violence on the magnitude of Jonestown," he says, evoking the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana where 900 American cult members died on the orders of leader Jim Jones. Brower spends several days each week in the fundamentalist enclave of Hildale-Colorado City, and has extensively interviewed current and former followers of Jeffs. "I know there's people who will die for him, lie for him, steal for him," he says. "I've heard people say they'd kill their family if Jeffs asked them to, that's how strongly they believe."

His fears are shared by child victim advocate Flora Jessop, 34, who fled the Arizona-Utah enclave as a 16-year-old bride. The only thing more dangerous than arresting Jeffs is leaving him be, she says from Phoenix, where she works to rescue children from the sect. "It's not a matter of if there's going to be violence, it's a matter of when," she says. "Things are going to continue to deteriorate to the point where there's going to be a lot more innocents hurt."

Folks in Eldorado, fluctuating between bemusement and worry, are prone to black jokes about Waco, Texas, and the disastrous 1993 FBI raid that triggered the blazing end to David Koresh's armed fortress. That's one subject that can turn Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, an amiable man, as prickly as a cactus pear. Ill-advised federal raids are no longer likely, nor is there evidence to warrant police intervention, he says. "The dynamics of this are totally different than Waco." Doran's crash course on cults and fundamentalism began in March, when news of the ranch was broken by his friend Randy Mankin, owner and editor of the Eldorado Success. Since then, Mankin and his photographer wife, Kathy, haven't wanted for news. Trouble is, it isn't just a story, says Randy. "I'm concerned for my town."

The sheriff has had limited success building bridges to the group. One member with whom he established some rapport was then excommunicated and his wives reassigned to other men. Without jurisdiction to patrol private ranches, at least without probable cause, Doran makes regular overflights of the fundamentalists' 1,700-acre dusty domain. They're plenty busy for a group expecting to soon be lifted to a better world as non-believers burn in the hellfire of Armageddon. He estimates they're spending, in the nearby city of San Angelo alone, US$1 million a month on supplies.

Doran scrolls through dozens of aerial photos. They show the progress of a spreading road grid, hotel-style housing, huge storage and meeting rooms, and the foundation for a structure so massive it proved a puzzlement until the Success reported speculation that it is to be a limestone temple. "They have lights set up, they work 24 hours a day," says Doran. "They're just like ants."

Sons and Daughter

The battle for control of the fundamentalist church has torn a swath through Jane Blackmore's fragile new life. A slight, intense 48-year-old with jet-black hair and sad, dark eyes, she sits in her Cranbrook home -- 90 minutes and a world apart from her past as the first of an estimated 26 wives of Winston Blackmore. She is a nurse and, until her recent divorce from Blackmore, she served as midwife in Bountiful, a role she still fills on occasion. She has admitted in the past to aiding births for mothers as young as 15. She's delivered many of her ex-husband's estimated 80 children by other wives. These aren't subjects for today, she says firmly. If authorities do investigate Bountiful, she says, "I'll be willing to do my part." Jane left her husband, lost her faith and walked away from the cloistered world of Bountiful, but it is the disappearance of her 23-year-old daughter Susie and her young grandsons that most troubles her.

Susie, like most teen girls in Bountiful, and like Jane herself, married young to a man assigned by the church. Her appointed husband was Ben Johnson, a devout fundamentalist whom Susie, then 17, hadn't met. "She flew with her father to Salt Lake City, met him and married him five minutes later," says Jane. They settled in Colorado City, where Johnson later took a second wife. Trouble began when Jeffs gained control of the church. Johnson is an ardent follower.

He limited Susie's contact with her parents. This spring, the family vanished altogether. Jane, and her sister Debbie Palmer, herself a former plural wife who fled Bountiful in 1988, have reported Susie's disappearance to police and plied their contacts -- to no avail. Sheriff Doran finally had a phone call from Susie this summer, after pressing people at the YFZ Ranch for an explanation. She told Doran she was "on a mission," but refused to reveal her whereabouts. She phoned her mother at his urging but said little except that she wanted to be left alone.

Jane and Debbie fear Susie is among the "chosen," whom Jeffs says will be lifted to a better world, and they suspect he is using Susie to strike back at his rival, Winston Blackmore. "She's truly in a lot of danger," says Palmer, co-author of Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy, a book due for release late this year about her own troubled childhood in Bountiful. Under Jeffs, the church has veered in even more bizarre directions, she says. "The teachings of the group have deteriorated in such a radically extreme manner that it's almost unrecognizable."

The sisters say Johnson is a leader of the Sons of Helaman, a church group for teen boys in the twin cities that has, under Jeffs, taken a sinister turn as a youth militia. The Sons have authority to barge into homes, reporting to the hierarchy such "iniquities" as televisions, radios, novels, the wrong music, even the wearing of red, says Shem Fischer, one of dozens of twin city churchmen who've lost homes, families and livelihoods after falling out with Jeffs. "I've heard that now this young group of boys has been introduced to firearms; they learn how to shoot, do weaponry and explosives," says Fischer. He now helps run a Utah-based group resettling some 400 so-called "lost boys" who were cast out of the church -- in part, he says, to ensure a supply of young brides for the FLDS leadership.

Jeffs's erratic actions have driven some U.S. members into a community of a few hundred fundamentalists in northern Idaho, across the border from Bountiful. Some, like Ezra Draper, 32, and his wife and four children, lost their homes in Utah for rejecting Jeffs's extremism. Draper considers Blackmore the legitimate leader of his church, one now twisted beyond recognition. He stands in downtown Bonners Ferry, where he now works in retail, looking defiant and a bit lost. "The F in FLDS has switched," he says, "from fundamentalist to fanaticism."

Worlds Apart

Trouble circles Winston Blackmore after years of running his world -- and a lucrative array of Creston and area businesses -- with absolute dominion. Bountiful, where "keep sweet" has always been the guiding mantra, is bitterly split. Jeffs's followers attend a separate school and largely shun those loyal to Blackmore -- neighbours who often are, quite literally, their Mormon brothers and sisters. Nor is the larger Creston community as predisposed as it once was to accept polygamy as a victimless, if quirky, lifestyle. Creston Mayor Joe Snopek, a long-time defender of Blackmore, concedes that the impact of the rift is manifesting itself in drug and alcohol use among some of the group's disaffected teens. "That," he says, "was unheard of before." A recently formed Creston women's group -- Altering Destiny Through Education -- is drawing attention to Bountiful's independent schools. They do little, the group says, except prepare girls for early marriage and boys for stoop labour. "I don't give a damn about their religion," says member Deb Quesnel. "They need to educate those children properly so when they grow up they can make an educated decision."

Then there are the investigations. The RCMP -- at the urging of B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant -- is reviewing its handling of former allegations of abuse in Bountiful before deciding if a full investigation is warranted. Past cases went nowhere; then, as now, few stepped forward to say they were victimized, and legal opinions suggested polygamy laws wouldn't survive a constitutional challenge based on freedom of religion. "We're looking at it with fresh eyes," says RCMP spokesman Sgt. John Ward. A B.C. human rights tribunal, meanwhile, will hear a complaint of sexual discrimination by Debbie Palmer and a group of B.C. women. Among the allegations: that teenage girls are swapped across the border to become wives, and that they're coerced by the threat of eternal damnation "to become concubines in harems and bear many children."

Blackmore proves an elusive interview, though he offers a few cautious email responses. The direction the church has gone under Jeffs, he says, "has no precedent in the history of Mormon fundamentalists." As for the RCMP: "If Canadian authorities were to investigate everyone that others considered were involved in illegal and ungodly activities, it would take them 100 years to finally get around to us." Some of Bountiful's plural wives have spoken out in his defence. They placed an ad in the Creston paper in October, saying the only violation of their rights comes from "the false accusations of a few self-serving activists," fanned by a media frenzy. "We have all the freedom in the world," says Cherene Palmer, 57, a mother of 14 and one of Blackmore's wives. "Our religion is no more a cult than any other." Nor, she insists, would the women of Bountiful tolerate abuse.

Marlene Palmer, 46, looks up from her computer in the Creston headquarters of J.R. Blackmore & Sons, Winston's family business. A smile belies an edge of frustration in her voice. She is a mother of six, and a plural wife to a man she won't name. Like many Bountiful men, he is legally married to one woman, while subsequent wives are married only in the eyes of the church, making polygamy tough to prove. And why should it be prosecuted if the women know and accept each other, she asks. "Men haven't been monogamous, truly, for hundreds and hundreds of years, but usually the other women don't know about each other. There's a mistress here, there's a mistress there," she says, shrugging at the hypocrisy of it all.

Unlike Eldorado, no gate blocks the road to Bountiful. But it remains a closed society, crowded by an uncomprehending world and backed against the unyielding mass of the Skimmerhorn Mountains. Parked on a hilltop, a visitor wonders what to make of the place. Down the road, a little girl in a long pioneer dress plays alone under a tree in the yard of Blackmore's motel-like compound. Scudding grey clouds and a weak, setting sun change the view moment by moment. Look, and the scene is suffused in a pastoral, golden glow. Look again, the light has drained, the fields are cast in shadow, the mountain is a looming, malevolent force.

Two women of Bountiful stop their van to see if anything is wrong. Just looking at the view, they're told. They smile because for them, at this moment, there is no doubt. "Oh, yes," the driver says, "beautiful, isn't it?"

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