Polygamist leader's arrest sets stage for cross-border FLDS power struggle

Canadian Press/August 30, 2006
By Jeremy Hainsworth

Vancouver (CP) -- A woman who escaped from a breakaway fundamentalist Mormon commune says the group's leaders will be battling for control of the B.C. sect after the arrest of so-called prophet Warren Jeffs in Nevada.

Debbie Palmer said in an interview that Winston Blackmore of Bountiful, B.C., will be assessing his options for taking power over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Blackmore was removed as bishop of Bountiful by Jeffs and replaced with her brother, Jim Oler

"I know that Winston has been positioning himself to be available as a leader for any of the ones who have become disillusioned," Palmer said Wednesday.

But that could be difficult.

While Oler is Jeffs' point man and "enforcer" in Bountiful, he is also Blackmore's nephew. The two had been close at one point.

"The lines are quite firmly drawn," Palmer said.

"The fact that Jim accepted the position under Warren to be a bishop was quite a shock to all of us because Jim and Winston had been quite close.

"He (Oler) had had a similar position under Winston for many years.

Palmer also said switching allegiance is a delicate matter in the community.

"The blood is just boiling over there. There's some really bad feelings right now," said Palmer who fled the B.C. commune in 1988 with her eight children after years of abuse. She still has relatives in Bountiful.

"Winston is in a position right now where he's bound to pick up - well, he will be picking up - quite a few of the people who are the casualties to do with Warren Jeffs' mad scramble to firm up his compounds in the States."

Blackmore could not be reached for comment.

On his blog, there is only a brief cryptic comment about the arrest under the headline: He got caught.

"Is it going to do any thing to have him caught?" the posting reads and includes a link to a news story on the arrest.

Jeffs, the self-proclaimed "speaker of God's will" and leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was wanted in the two U.S. states on suspicion of sexual misconduct for allegedly arranging marriages of underage girls.

The renegade group has long been disavowed by the mainstream Mormon church, which does not practise polygamy.

Jeffs was also wanted for fraud.

He was so notorious that he made it onto the FBI's 10 most wanted list with the likes of Osama Bin Laden.

It had been rumoured he was in British Columbia. Blackmore had said Jeffs would have been a fool to have remained in the U.S.

About 1,000 people live on the B.C. land located a stone's throw from the U.S. border. Half are followers of Jeffs, the other half follow Blackmore.

The situation is so toxic that brothers don't speak to brothers and women not to their mothers, depending on which leader they follow.

Palmer is dubious about what effect any imprisonment may have on Jeffs' control of the group.

She said many of the people who were not selected to be among Jeffs' "elect people" have lost their homes, businesses and families. Some "are living in rags, still sending him money."

"It doesn't matter where he is or which prison he's in, he's still got enough bishops or enforcers in place in those compounds," she says.

"Warren Jeffs has absolutely controlled every part of their lives including when they can have sex with their husbands, who they can marry, where they can work if they can work and - if they lose their wife and kids today and if you're a woman - who you're going to be married to next week."

Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas said Jeffs' arrest should come as a warning to sect adherents in Canada and serve as a push to Canadian authorities.

He said the concerns that prompted American authorities to act are also present here.

"There still needs to be something done by the Canadian authorities," Matas said.

"I don't see much difference between what Jeffs has done and what some the leaders of . . . the Bountiful community (have done). Their behaviour seems much the same."

But the RCMP say it's too early to know whether the U.S. arrest of Jeffs will have an impact on the Canadian investigation into the Bountiful community.

Staff Sgt. John Ward has said Jeffs is not facing any charges in Canada, nor is he a suspect in the Mounties' ongoing investigation in Bountiful, where allegations of child abuse surfaced years ago.

There have been allegations of human trafficking involving young girls being moved across the border into Canada so they can be married off to older men.

Jeffs' sect is based in the state-line communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

Ward said the Mounties' probe of Bountiful, a community south of Creston, B.C., is moving ahead.

He said a brief on the investigation will be sent to Crown prosecutors soon .

"They have not received our brief yet," he said. "We're hoping to be able to give them that before the fall."

Last month, the attorneys general of B.C., Arizona and Utah met to discuss the polygamy situation in their jurisdictions.

However, any investigations into the polygamous activities of the sect have been hampered by the fact that most witnesses don't want to testify.

Followers are said to be brainwashed into distrusting authorities and many of the women say they're happy sharing a husband with several other women.

Jeffs was captured Monday evening on the outskirts of Las Vegas and was in custody awaiting a court hearing Thursday on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Two people travelling with him, wife Naomi Jeffs and a brother, Isaac Steed Jeffs, both 32, were released and will not be charged, FBI agent Steven Martinez said.

Authorities said Jeffs was found with cellphones, laptop computers, wigs and more than $50,000 US in cash when he was captured.

Linda Price, a Creston resident who has tried to help children in Bountiful move into the mainstream school system, said Jeffs' arrest may have little effect on his followers in B.C.

"They probably don't even realize what his charges are or any of that stuff," she said. "They are completely isolated."

Palmer's book about her experiences in the sect, Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy, was published last year.

She said some readers have found the book so disturbing that she has apologized to them.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.