Woman shares polygamy tale

'It isn't a pretty story' but is meant to be warning for others

Rocky Mountain News/November 30, 2005
By Deborah Frazier

Colorado Springs - For 26 years, Brenda Tibbitts never talked about her life as the third wife of a Colorado polygamist.

Now, she wants her story told to warn other women.

"It isn't a pretty story," said Tibbitts, 45, who was married to Michael Combs, 55, for 20 years. They had five children and built a multimillion-dollar wholesale vitamin business in Montrose County.

She left Combs, who still lives in Montrose County with his remaining two wives, in 1999 and moved her children to Colorado Springs.

"All those years, he told me that if I left, he'd crawl through the grass to put a bullet in my head," Tibbitts said.

Both Michael Combs and Ashley Chagnon, one of the attorneys representing Combs, declined repeated requests for comment for this story.

Polygamy is illegal in Colorado. Law enforcement officials in Montrose and the community at large knew about Combs' multiple wives, but they did nothing about it.

"What he does isn't necessarily illegal," said Montrose County Undersheriff Dick Deines.

"He has only one legal wife and it's not criminal to have other so-called wives through his church and beliefs," said Deines.

The Colorado attorney general's office said Deines is wrong.

"It is against the law," said Kristen Hubbell, spokeswoman for the Colorado attorney general.

Combs declined to respond to his wife's allegations. He and his wives aren't part of any other polygamist group.

Attorney Chagnon said she couldn't comment because of pending court cases.

Those court cases, filed in Montrose and El Paso Counties, detail Combs' polygamy, the divorce and the battle over Brenda Tibbitts' share of the $10 million vitamin business.

The legal files state that when Tibbitts left Combs in 1999, Combs wrote and filed a notarized "Domestic Agreement" setting out a settlement "to dissolve their relationship as man and wife."

Estes Park courtship

Tibbitts said she met Combs in 1978. She was 17, living in Estes Park with her family and working as a waitress with her sister, Carlene, then 19.

"He was living in Estes Park with his wife, Debbie, and he came into the restaurant," said Tibbitts. Debbie Combs was legally married to Combs.

After a two-week courtship, Combs and Carlene Tibbitts went to Utah in 1978 to be married in a polygamist "celestial" ceremony, performed by the late polygamist leader Alex Joseph, said Tibbitts.

Joseph would later marry Michael Combs to Brenda Tibbitts in the same ritual the following year.

Carlene Tibbitts' wedding came less than two months after her father, Weeden Tibbitts, died.

"Michael used Dad's death. He talked to Carlene about his religion and how she could only see Dad again in heaven through his religion," said Tibbitts.

Ruth Tibbitts, Brenda's and Carlene's mother, said that when she learned of Carlene's marriage to an already married man, she called Bob Ault, who was then chief of police in Estes Park.

"He said it wasn't bigamy, it was polygamy and there was nothing I could do about it because she was over 18," said Ruth Tibbitts.

Ault, retired and living in Estes Park, recalls the conversation. He said he told Ruth Tibbitts that he would need a complaint from Carlene Combs to act.

"I went into hysterics," said Ruth Tibbitts. Michael, Debbie and Carlene Combs moved to a polygamist community in Glen Canyon City on the Arizona-Utah border.

Later that year, Michael and Carlene Combs started to recruit Brenda as the next wife during family visits and his trips to Estes Park.

"They all tried to convince me that polygamy was OK," said Brenda Tibbitts.

In the fall of 1978, Michael and Carlene Combs came back to Estes Park, said they were working on a movie about the life of Jesus and offered to get Brenda a part.

"I was 18. I wanted to be in the movies," she said. "He worked it so well it makes me sick now."

Brenda Tibbitts moved to Utah, lived with Michael Combs' family and worked on the movie, In Search of Historic Jesus, for a few weeks.

"Marriage had never come up," said Brenda Tibbitts. "But one night he took me out to a bar and said he'd really like me to join the family.

"He said I didn't have to have sex with him," she said. "I didn't believe the marriage would really happen. I was stupid."

Two weeks later, they were married by Alex Joseph.

The honeymoon was a sales trip for Combs' fledgling herbal vitamin business, and Michael Combs told her it was her duty to have sex with him, she said.

"What in my upbringing made me so pathetic that I didn't drive away?" she said.

Within a few weeks, Brenda Tibbitts Combs was pregnant. She said she tried to escape but Michael Combs took her car and sold it.

"I just gave up my life," said Brenda Tibbitts.

"I was afraid he'd kill me if I went to the police," she said. "He told me I couldn't file a complaint about polygamy because we were not legally married."

Carlene Combs, who still lives near Norwood with her five children and Combs, declined comment, as did Debbie Combs, who lives in Montrose with her nine children and Combs.

Move to Montrose County

The Combs clan moved to rural Montrose County in 1980. Carlene Combs left her husband and stayed with her mother, who had moved to Lakewood.

"Mike called and called and called. She went back to him," said Ruth Tibbitts. "If either of my girls had ever asked me to come get them, I would have."

Brenda Tibbitts said she didn't try to leave because Michael Combs threatened her with the loss of her children if she left.

"After my first daughter was born, he said he'd give her to Debbie (Combs) to raise if I left," said Brenda Tibbitts.

Combs also told her that God doesn't grant divorces and she would go to hell if she left, Brenda Tibbitts said.

"I hated God. I remember lying in bed and saying to God 'If you hate me so much, just kill me, kill me viciously,' but God wouldn't even do that," she said.

"Then I realized it wasn't God doing this. It was Michael."

Brenda Tibbitts did rebel in raising her children. Most of the other 14 Combs children were home- schooled and not allowed to have friends, she said.

Her three daughters and two sons went to public school, played sports and had friends outside the family.

"I owed them that. I'd brought them into the world," she said. But Combs wouldn't allow her to have friends, she said.

"He said I didn't need friends, I had the other wives."

When she did leave Combs, he said that her children would go to hell if they left with her, Brenda Tibbitts said.

"My children are glad we left," she said.

Household 'circuit'

Michael and Debbie Combs now share a home in Montrose. Michael and Carlene Combs have a 9,000- square-foot log home in Sanborn Park, at the west end of Montrose County.

Michael and Brenda Tibbitts Combs also had a 9,000-square-foot stone-trimmed home in Sanborn Park, where Combs raised buffalo for a few years on the 500-acre tract.

The custom-built homes at Sanborn Park had an incredible view of the San Juan mountains, said Brenda Tibbitts.

"It was so pristine and so peaceful," she said. The family's wholesale vitamin business, HoneyCombs Industries, thrived.

"Michael was at one house one night, another house the next night and the third house the next night," said Brenda Combs. "He had a circuit."

The family didn't celebrate Christmas or Easter, she said.

"We did do Thanksgiving. The wives didn't get along well, but the children had all bonded, so we got along for the day," said Brenda Tibbitts.

Ruth Tibbitts, who moved to Montrose in 1990 to be close to her daughters and grandchildren, was a regular visitor to the homes.

"People in Montrose knew about Michael having three wives. In a little town like that, you can't keep secrets," said Ruth Tibbitts.

"I belong to a ladies group and one woman asked me about the rumors. I told her the truth and answered the questions," she said. "No one was surprised."

When Brenda Tibbitts left Combs in 1999, she worried about how her children would respond.

They've thrived, she said.

To protect their new lives in Colorado Springs, Tibbitts declined to give her children's names.

"It didn't matter so much in Montrose; everyone already knew," she said.

Courts affirm Tibbitts

There's a trail of legal paperwork supporting Brenda Tibbitts' version of the polygamous marriage.

Under the 1999 agreement, Combs agreed to pay Tibbitts $4,000 a month for child support and alimony, court records show.

He made the child support payments until February 2004, according to court records. In March 2004, Combs appealed the agreement in El Paso County District Court.

In court filings, Combs' attorneys argue that the agreement should be voided because Brenda Tibbitts Combs knew that Michael Combs was already legally married to Debbie Combs.

El Paso County District Court Judge Kirk Samelson ruled in March that Combs drafted the 1999 agreement and stated its purpose was to "dissolve their relationship as man and wife."

Samelson also said that Combs acknowledged that they were married "based on religious beliefs."

And, Samelson ordered Combs to pay $48,000 in back child support, plus $2,079 in interest and $620 in court costs.

Combs appealed Samelson's decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals in May 2005, where a decision is pending.

In the original agreement, Combs also promised to pay Tibbitts $2.5 million for her share in HoneyCombs Industries and joint property.

That part of the agreement is pending in Montrose County District Court.

The state's judicial system has given Brenda Tibbitts hope.

"Michael always said, 'You can't win in court and you have no leg to stand on,' " said Brenda Tibbitts.

"Both judges have told him that we were married and that he acknowledged that in the settlement agreement."

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