Idaho officials studying polygamists in Bonners Ferry

San Diego Union-Tribune/April 19, 2005
By Nicholas K. Geranios

Bonners Ferry, USA -- Mayor Darrell Kerby never thought much about polygamy until he learned that a splinter faction of Mormon fundamentalists lived in Canada, just 30 miles north of this Idaho Panhandle town.

Then he was shocked to learn that polygamists were moving into his own community, driven north by a leadership rift from their stronghold in Utah.

For Kerby and other Idaho officials, the news was upsetting because it raised concerns about possible child abuse, welfare fraud, trafficking in child brides and other crimes.

"It's so convoluted in its potential for abuse,'' Kerby said last week. "It will not be allowed. We are not going to fall prey to what other communities have.''

Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare is investigating possible welfare fraud and child brides in Boundary County, which has about 10,000 residents, but has found no evidence that is occurring, spokesman Tom Shanahan said.

Idaho law enforcement officers likewise say they have no reports of laws being broken, and are not even sure how many polygamists have moved into the county.

"There's lots of talk about underage brides, but no one seems to be able to produce one,'' said Boundary County Sheriff Greg Sprungl.

The root of the issue appears to be a split in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist group chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his 2003 book, "Under the Banner of Heaven.''

The group has been centered for decades in the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and has maintained an affiliated group of about 1,000 people in a community called Bountiful, just outside the border town of Creston, British Columbia. Warren Jeffs is the overall leader.

The longtime leader of the Bountiful group, Winston Blackmore, has been deposed by Jeffs. Jeffs has since evicted men who were loyal to Blackmore, and reassigned their wives and children to men who were loyal to him.

But Blackmore, long known as the Bishop of Bountiful, has refused to leave the community. It is his supporters from Hildale and Colorado City who Idaho officials believe are moving into Boundary County, to be closer to their spiritual leader.

Idaho legislators have formed a special committee to examine persistent claims that child brides are being transported through the state, as part of exchanges between Bountiful and Utah.

"We are just starting to look into it,'' said state Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, who co-sponsored the study proposal.

Dave Kramer, police chief for Bonners Ferry, has met with residents of the Creston area to collect information on the polygamists.

"We don't want to play catch up down the road,'' Kramer said. "We are trying to educate ourselves and be aware of what potential crimes might be committed.''

The problem for Idaho officials is that polygamists keep a low profile and finding evidence of wrongdoing usually requires an inside informer.

Ezra Draper, an FLDS member who lives in Bonners Ferry, contends he is the only member of the group that he knows of living in the county. Blackmore has said that 40 to 50 FLDS members from Boundary County attend church services in Bountiful.

Debbie Palmer, a former polygamist wife in Bountiful who now is an advocate against the practice, estimated that 200 to 300 people involved in that lifestyle have moved into the Bonners Ferry area in the past seven years.

Palmer, who lives in Saskatchewan and writes and lectures extensively on polygamy, said Blackmore's supporters have moved to northern Idaho because they are not able to get permits to live in Canada because the jobs skills they have are not needed there.

The FLDS members in Idaho have bought big parcels of land that accommodate several large houses, and built a school for their children, Palmer said.

Palmer, who is Blackmore's stepmother, left the FLDS in 1988, but gathers information from people who leave the group.

Blackmore, reached on his cell phone, declined to speak to The Associated Press last week, and the Bountiful community is festooned with "No Trespassing'' signs.

Located at the foot of dramatic Skimmerhorn Mountain, Bountiful has existed for more than 50 years. In recent months it has become the eye of a media storm. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police last year announced they would investigate allegations of abuse of women and children, including forced marriages of teenage girls to older men.

That brought so much attention that the women of Bountiful have scheduled a public "Summit on Polygamy'' on Tuesday evening to give their side of the story.

The FLDS requires members to clothe themselves from wrists to ankles, even during summer's hottest days. FLDS girls wear long pioneer-style dresses, and style their long hair into elaborate braids.

Members contend they practice polygamy as Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commanded in order to achieving everlasting life.

The mainline Mormon church disavowed polygamy in 1890 as a condition for Utah's statehood and excommunicates members who practice or preach it. An estimated 30,000 polygamists whose beliefs are rooted in Mormonism live in Utah and parts of the Southwest, Mexico and Canada. Hildale-Colorado City's estimated 10,000 members make it the largest polygamist group in the West.

The FLDS established the border community, then known as Short Creek, in 1935. Warren Jeffs' father, Rulon, became president and prophet in 1986 at the death of longtime leader LeRoy Johnson. Rulon Jeffs died in 2002, and Warren Jeffs' became the church's leader.

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