Polygamist sect moving into north Idaho

Idaho's NewsChannel 7/May 10, 2005
By Andrea Dearden

Just steps from the Idaho-Canada border there is a sect of fundamentalist Mormons who have openly practiced polygamy for four generations.

Long considered a reclusive group, allegations of sexual abuse and forced marriage are causing members of the community to come forward.

To better understand the polygamists moving into Boundary County, you only have to go a few feet across Idaho’s northern border into the Creston Valley of Canada.

It is there, NewsChannel 7 met the women of Bountiful.

Tucked away in the Creston Valley of British Columbia and nestled under the shadow of the Skimmerhorn Mountains, just yards from the U.S. border, sits 50 or so homes. Some are trailers and run-down cabins, while others are more like motels than houses.

They stand amid well-groomed gardens, pastures and ponds. All are brimming with children.

This is Bountiful. A closer look reveals it is a community unlike most others.

The families here are "living the principle" - the practice of polygamy.

"We are sisters and sister-wives. We have the same fathers but different mothers, and we both married the same man," said fundamentalist Leah Barlow.

For Leah and Edith Barlow and the 1,000 residents of Bountiful, the belief that men must accumulate "plural wives" to achieve salvation is a central doctrine of their faith.

"We draw, in large part, our scriptural beliefs and philosophies from the Mormon philosophy," said fundamentalist Mary Batchelor.

But the men and women here aren't members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It banned the practice of polygamy more than a century ago.

They call themselves "fundamentalist Mormons" and fiercely defend their religion.

"We are what we are and nothing will ever change that," said fundamentalist Roger Palmer.

Long considered a reclusive group, some families in Bountiful have organized a bold public relations campaign to defend their lifestyle.

They invited the public and the media to a summit in the nearby community of Creston where they would answer decade-old allegations of abuse, such as claims that girls are brainwashed, married off as young as 13 and trafficked in and out of communes in the U.S.

"Yes, Canadian girls have married U.S. boys and vice versa, but only on rare occasions. According to my knowledge, in no situation have any girls younger than 15 been married," said Barlow.

"These girls are 16, 17-years-old with three and four children and another on the way. People go to jail for raping girls, and this is just like rape as far as we're concerned," said protester Kay Merritt.

Kay Merritt was among the protesters standing outside the Creston Community Hall holding signs and wearing t-shirts that warn of the dangers of polygamy. Opponents believe very few living "the principle" have any say it in.

"They're brainwashed. That's not really having a choice, is it?," Merritt asks.

"Since they were small children they were taught that is all there is," said Audrey Vance.

The fundamentalist men take one legal wife, and the rest are joined to him spiritually.

Only half of those living in Bountiful have been awarded multiple wives.

"It's not because they don't want, or they will not live the principle. It's just that is hasn't happened yet," said fundamentalist Nola Oler.

One of 47 siblings, Nola Oler grew up in a house with five mothers, but she is the only woman married to her husband. She finds herself, at times, wishing for sister-wives.

"There are times, yes, when I have envied them. The companionship with sister-wives, and the fact they have someone there to help them," said Oler.

“They are a super support to me and I can't even imagine my life without them," said Barlow.

"They see this all around them, and they accept that that's the only way they’re going to get to heaven is to be the wife of a man who has his own kingdom," said author Dave Perrin.

Dave Perrin started studying the Bountiful fundamentalists two decades ago after discovering his wife, Ruth, had escaped the group years earlier.

"My wife was married to a man in his mid-50's while on her 15th birthday," said Perrin.

Perrin says the Bountiful summit was clearly orchestrated. He offers his mother-in-law, Aloha Boehmer as proof. Like her daughter, Boehmer left the sect some 35 years ago, but she was here to publicly support the group. She told us she doesn't believe the allegations.

"They’re not pushed. They're not forced," said Boehmer. "They’re people and they like the way they live.”

Were her remarks sincere or an orchestrated show of support mandated by the church?

In an interview aired by the CBC in 1992, Boehmer told of the day her young daughter was taken away and forced into a church-assigned marriage.

"It was, to me, very unnatural," said Boehmer. "The man she was married to was 40-years older than she was. I was pretty hostile and that was the final break, when I went over and said I want that girl back, she was 15."

The story is one of several chronicled in a book published by Perrin to expose, what he calls, the hidden abuse and exploitation in polygamous communities. "Keep Sweet" is Bountiful's motto and is repeated like a mantra among its women.

"They are told to keep sweet and keep everything on a nice, mellow tone. No arguing or fighting," said Dave Perrin.

Perrin's co-author, Debbie Palmer, fled the fundamentalist community after 34 years.

Her family tree reveals twisted bloodlines found in polygamist families.

Her father had six wives and 47 children.

At the age of 15, Debbie was assigned the sixth wife of a church elder, a man 40 years her senior.

She has eight children and 86 stepchildren, one of whom is Winston Blackmore, the Bishop of Bountiful.

"My call to ministry came in 1980, and eventually in 1984 became the bishop of our community," said Winston Blackmore.

A man of considerable wealth and influence, Blackmore is in charge of the land and the homes, deciding who lives where. He has business interests in British Columbia, Alberta, and in Idaho with companies that employ most of the young men raised in Bountiful.

He won't give an exact number, but it is believed Winston Blackmore has fathered more than 80 children with 27 wives, but he claims to have very little control over that.

"This girl got with her parents and went to an authority over my head and they basically said, 'we want to get married' and by the way 'we want to marry that guy,'" said Blackmore. "I am telling you guys that is just, honestly, how it works and you can groan about that until the cows come home, but it is still the way that it happens."

When asked about the wives he has taken, Blackmore contradicted earlier statements and admitted some of them have been young girls.

"There was one, one day shy of her 14th birthday. I have married several very young wives in my life. That doesn't mean the day after the next that all the things you can imagine happened," he said.

Procreation is also part of the principle. The church encourages women to have as many children as possible, as they, too, ensure higher placement in the celestial kingdom. Girls as young as three are taught to, one day, become mothers.

"Three-, four-, five-years-old these girls are being given clothes for their first baby - what is that telling them?" asks Dave Perrin.

The children are educated in the church's school, but it only offers first through seventh grades.

After that, boys are sent to work for the Blackmore Company, usually performing heavy manual labor.

"Those boys are hard workers and, you know, they're taught from the time they hit the ground that they're going to have to put out," said Perrin.

A few of the girls are home-schooled to become teachers or midwifes, but they are the exceptions. The majority dedicate their lives to being wives and mothers.

Dating is prohibited, all marriages are decided by the church, so the girls bide their time, waiting for word from the prophet.

"Right now I’m doing exactly what I want to do with my life, and I chose it," said fundamentalist Nola Oler.

"It’s my religion. It's not something that we live independent of that. It is all part of our religion, our beliefs and our lifestyle. It's not something we're going to throw away because someone doesn't agree with it. It's such a part of us. I wouldn't exist without it and I am so grateful for it in my life," said Leah and Edith Barlow.

Nearly every person living in Bountiful descended from one of four men, once a part of the fundamentalist sect in Utah and Arizona.

The group is in the midst of a major power struggle, and followers of Winston Blackmore are moving into north Idaho to be closer to him.

NewsChannel 7 found proof the fundamentalists are quietly buying up Boundary County land and building a community that your tax dollars may be going to support.

Our investigation continues with a look at the "Price of Polygamy" tonight on the New at Ten.

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