It's a remote town in an idyllic valley where polygamy is the norm and the neighbours don't seem to mind. But are there darker secrets lurking within?
From the remote port hill customs post on the B.C.-Idaho border, the road to Bountiful snakes east and north and east and south and east again, past fields of timothy and towering roadside cottonwoods. It's beautiful country.
At the end of the meandering route, clustered beneath the Skimmerhorn Mountains, are fifty or so houses set amid well-tended gardens and pastures. Smoke from wood stoves curls from nearly every chimney.
Pickup trucks are parked in driveways. The yards are manicured and full of swing sets, tricycles, and children running and shouting and laughing. The yellow buses standing beside Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School are precisely the colour of the larch that line the steep screen slopes directly above the little settlement. The mountains' jagged summits are dusted with snow. Bountiful is, to an outsider, a postcard of Bruegelian activity. The most dangerous thing around, it would seem, is the red-tailed hawk, poised on the branch of a tree.
But a closer look reveals that this is a community unlike most others. A sign along the village's main road reads: " Thou Shalt Not Park Here.
And straight ahead, clustered around a paved parking lot and a stand of weeping willows, sit five buildings. The two largest look more like motels than homes, with a series of doorways along both the ground and balcony floors. But homes they are.
This is where Winston Blackmore lives with his twenty-eight wives and eighty children, give or take a few. Around him in nearby houses live several dozen other fundamentalist Mormon men whose reading of the Old Testament tells them that they, too, should acquire plural-so-called " celestial "-wives in order to increase the number of their progeny.
The people of Bountiful-who number between 600 and 1,000 depending on who's counting-belong to the United Effort Plan (UEP), an Arizona-based sect who believe God favours those who are fruitful and multiply. One of five breakaway Mormon sects in North America that still practise polygamy, the 10,000 members of the UEP make up less than 20 percent of the polygamous Mormons on the continent. But in the past year they have become the most visible group because of fierce internal fighting, U.S. court actions, and allegations from former members of a cross-border trade in underage girls destined for polygamous marriages. Together with their UEP compatriots in Colorado City, Arizona, the leaders of Bountiful are accused of shipping young sons and daughters north and south, both to stir the gene pool a little and to quell mutterings of adolescent rebellion by exile, assigned marriage, and teenage pregnancy.
Both communities follow the preachings and directives of a ninety-one-year-old " prophet " named Rulon T. Jeffs. His Canadian lieutenant is forty-five-year-old Winston Blackmore. These men, according to former UEP members, have an iron grip on their flock, dictating who lives where, who is shunned, which man is to be blessed with his third, fifth, or fifteenth wife, even what style of undergarments are to be worn. Jeffs and Blackmore deny such extensive control over members' lives but freely admit to polygamy.
Blackmore maintains that the freedom of religion provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms shields the men of Bountiful from charges of polygamy. Last October at his first meeting with the press in a decade, he called the Charter "a wonderful piece which protects all people. . . [it"s] the same Charter that protects the gay and lesbian community and the same one that protects common-law relationships and the same one that protects unfaithful husbands . . . unfaithful wives . . . unfaithful everybodies."
Blackmore argues that when a woman from Bountiful or Colorado City becomes a plural wife she does not legally become that man's wife. The traditional marriage ceremony-where one of the man's other wives places the newest wife's hand in the hand of the husband-has no standing in the courts. The union is ordained, Blackmore says, by heaven; it is a celestial marriage.
But former UEP wives now campaigning for closer scrutiny of Mormon polygamists say celestial marriages are just a means to allow the men of Bountiful to avoid prosecution under Section 293 of the Criminal Code, which prescribes a sentence of up to five years for polygamy.
In the past, Canadian authorities have sided with Blackmore's position. The B.C. attorney-general considered laying polygamy charges against two UEP leaders in 1992, but later backed off when the government received legal advice that the men were probably protected by the Charter. Their transgression was, in essence, merely adultery.
On the other side of the border, however, authorities are being more aggressive. Utah has recently tightened up its polygamy laws, and three months ago, Thomas Green, a non-UEP Mormon polygamist with five wives and thirty children, was convicted on four counts of bigamy in Utah. He still faces a much more serious charge of child rape because, it is alleged, one of his wives was thirteen when they were married. The prosecution of Green is interpreted by many as a strong signal that some states intend to crack down on multiple marriages.
But in both Canada and the U.S. authorities are more interested in other allegations made by a group of almost fifty apostate UEP Mormons, including several women who have lived in Bountiful. They have formed a group called the Committee Concerned with Child Abuse in Polygamy and claim that girls as young as thirteen have been brought into Canada to become the plural wives of men often three times their age or more. If this is correct, those involved could be charged under the Canadian Criminal Code for a variety of sexual offences. Blackmore defends the community fiercely from these allegations, saying the stories of underage brides are nonsense and that 90 percent of UEP women marry whomever they wish to marry.
Police forces on both sides of the border are tight-lipped but concede they are looking into the reports. The RCMP say it's an "open file" but not a full investigation, although last month an officer was asking questions of former members. The Arizona attorney-general's office has no problems admitting that a full-fledged investigation is under way; it refuses, however, to release details.
The road to Bountiful really began in upstate New York in 1830 with the publication of The Book of Mormon, by Joseph Smith, Jr. A twenty-five-year-old farm hand, Smith wrote that God had revealed to him that some North American Natives are of the Tribe of Israel and that the long-sought Zion, where Christ would one day reappear, lay somewhere to the west. His gospel directed the faithful to assemble in preparation for the apocalypse, when the faithful would rise up amid a pillar of fire and each acquire at God's directive their own planet to populate. The first problem Smith and his followers faced was finding the Promised Land. God had told Smith it was located near a place called "Bountiful." So Smith gathered his new converts and travelled west, eventually settling in Utah. He also began adding to his divine revelations. The most important of these concerned plural marriage.
According to Smith, God is a polygamist. It was biblically ordained, he said, citing Genesis: the emulation of the prophet Abraham and the population of the earth with the progeny of " superior men. " By 1844, Smith had acquired up to forty-eight wives, one-third of them teenagers, another third the wives of other men. The women's job was to help spread Smith's seed.
Mormon polygamy was never universal, however. It was-and still is-practised largely by the male priests and bishops and the more prosperous men of the community. They got their pick of the young girls, and the poor got to look on enviously. This disparity led to some loud quarrels and a few frontier gun battles among the Mormons in nineteenth-century America. The conflict, in turn, helped provide the impetus for new federal laws prohibiting polygamy. In 1890, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the official Mormon Church, followed suit and also banned plural marriages among its members.
By then, some of the renegade polygamists had fled Utah, hoping to find religious freedom in the long-grass prairie of southwest Alberta. In 1887, forty-one Utah polygamists arrived in what is now Cardston; in following years, hundreds of others settled in Tabor, Aetna, Mountain View, Rosemary, and Lethbridge. They were met with Victorian righteousness: from pulpits across the country, warnings of depravity greeted the "Mormon menace." The Canadian government quickly passed legislation making polygamy punishable with five years' imprisonment.
The response of the taciturn Mormons was to keep their heads down and stick to themselves. Doing so, they prospered. In fact, John Blackmore-Winston Blackmore's grandfather-became MP for Lethbridge in 1935 and served for twenty-three years.
In the late 1940s, John Blackmore's son Harold, a family friend, Eldon Palmer, and two other men went looking for a more secluded place where they could live away from judgmental eyes. The men and their families settled the fertile valley on the U.S.-Canada border south of Creston, B.C. They allied themselves with the United Effort Plan and, in pioneer fashion, set about building homes, farming the land, and intermarrying.
They called the place Bountiful. Virtually every one of the people in the settlement today is related to the four founding men. So are its apostate critics.
Debbie Palmer's father was one of the founding four. He had six wives and forty-seven children. When Palmer was fourteen she told her father she would like to marry Ray Blackmore, the fifty-seven-year-old leader of Bountiful. He agreed and the next year, in June, 1971, she became his sixth wife and stepmother to his thirty-one children. Love wasn't the issue; duty was. It didn't even seem odd for her to marry her own stepmother's father, meaning she'd become both her stepmother's stepmother and her own stepgrandmother. In a closed polygamous community, these things happened.
She also accepted the Law of Chastity. Fundamentalist Mormon regulations stipulate that a woman can only have sex during the time of her ovulation since intercourse is strictly for reproduction. Pregnant or nursing women must also abstain from sex. Palmer saw how Bountiful's men applied this rule unequally- how they ignored the less attractive women and gave the pretty girls all the attention. Young, wilful, with a thick, waist-length braid and a luminous beauty, she quickly learned about the duplicity of men and the resentment of older women. Life as an attractive " sister-wife " was not always easy.
In 1974, Ray Blackmore died and within a few months, Palmer, then eighteen, was told by her father she'd marry Charles Quinton, another man more than three times her age. She disliked and feared him, but acquiesced. Quinton's four other wives fought among themselves. He would take the Family Allowance cheques and leave his wives and children with nothing. After five years of mistreatment, she told Quinton she was leaving him and he retaliated, threatening to take their two young children and have her banished from the sect. She briefly considered killing him. Instead, she tried to drown herself in nearby Goat River.
When she privately complained to her father about marital life, he quoted the Bible back to her, saying: "You must have a broken heart and a contrite spirit to know God." Still, Bountiful's leaders did allow her to be "re-assigned" to a new husband: Marvin Palmer, a thirty-eight year-old man with twenty children. In seven years, she had five more children with him. But one day in late 1986, Debbie's thirteen-year-old daughter, Memory, informed her that she'd been molested by a family member. Neither the girl nor her thirty-year-old mother knew what to do.
Complaints ran against the community's dictum of "Keep Sweet." Her daughter's sexual abuse woke her to memories she had long suppressed. She says she remembered being molested at three by a neighbour's adolescent son, her rape at seven by another Bountiful adolescent, the games of Cows and Bulls played in Bountiful's barn where the teenage boys would hollow out tunnels in the stacked bales of hay and fondle, and sometimes even rape, girls as young as four. Her "sister-wives" had their own tales of incest and childhood initiations into sex. "It hit me hard," says Palmer now." I laughed and I cried for an hour. "I was a virgin when I married,' I thought. I'd think that! I'd say that! Yet, I knew I wasn't. Because you're in God's place, you convince yourself what's happening . . . isn't."
She began speaking out-within the community-condemning what she saw as chronic sexual abuse and the silence surrounding it. In return, she says, Winston Blackmore began to insist that she shut up or leave Bountiful. In the winter of 1988, pregnant with her eighth child, she made the decision to leave the only home she had ever known.
In the early evening of February 7, her house went up in flames. She chased her family from the house amid the crackling and the stench of smoke, then phoned Blackmore, who lived nearby. "I think the house is on fire," she said. Standing outside and watching her house burn, she thought about how The Book of Mormon said that fire from heaven would protect the faithful during The Exaltation and that salvation for one's sins lay beyond.
"The fire looked so good to me!" she says. "I'd been told I lived in a protected place in Bountiful, but I learned it was all a lie. When I was three . . . when I was seven . . . all the times I was hurt . . . those memories were in the fire, I told myself. They were burning up, too."
When Blackmore asked her whether she had set the fire, she looked at him and said nothing. In Bountiful, you keep sweet. Then she took her children and moved to Alberta.
In 1992, three men from Bountiful were charged with and convicted of sexual abuse within the community as a result of Palmer's efforts to expose what was going on. The charges brought in social workers who investigated other reports of incest and abuse, but no other charges were laid. Palmer, by then a vocal apostate, was soon contracted by the B.C. Ministry of Women's Equality to help prepare an account of the settlement. The result, "Life in Bountiful: A report on the lifestyle of a polygamous community," advocates an investigation into the issue of coerced teenage marriages within the community; court action against the illegal polygamy within Bountiful; a transition house for those trying to flee. The report has languished, its recommendations largely ignored, for eight years.
Bountiful might have remained off the public radar had the village's sister settlement of Colorado City not erupted in open dissent last year. Some of the sect's Arizona members questioned the gradual replacement of Rulon T. Jeffs, the group's ageing prophet and self-proclaimed "Mouthpiece of God," with his ambitious forty-five-year-old son, Warren Jeffs. The dissenters had seen Warren Jeffs take a dozen young brides in recent years. Several more girls-two of them reportedly younger than sixteen-were assigned to his wheelchair-bound father. And about twenty others were said to have gone north to Winston Blackmore. (Insiders say that this paroxysm of plural marriages has come about because the elder Jeffs has begun making apocalyptic predictions. In fact, two dates for what Mormons call The Exaltation have recently passed.)
In the face of Warren Jeffs's growing unpopularity, tempers flared. Lawsuits were launched. Incest and sexual abuse were openly discussed.
Apostasy was declared from the pulpit. Warren Jeffs has insisted wives leave rebellious husbands. He has tried to seize dissidents' homes. He has launched countersuits. The infighting led to several Arizona State investigations. In retaliation against what he saw as state interference, Jeffs ordered the pulling out last September of nearly 1,000 children of polygamous families from the Colorado City schools.
One of the people caught up in the fight is DeLoy Bateman, forty-six, an Arizona polygamist with seventeen children. As a high-school science teacher in Colorado City he says he can't abide what Warren Jeffs has done. Even before the mass withdrawal of students last fall, he had noted a steady decline in the number of girls in the secondary classes.
The reason: the girls were being married off when they were anywhere from fourteen to seventeen. Since 1993, in fact, not one young woman from Colorado City has graduated from high school and gone on to university. A number of his students have ended up in Canada married to Bountiful men.
Bateman says he knows exactly how the system works. The road to Bountiful for the young American " virgins " contains a way station: a small UEP settlement located outside Bonners Ferry, Idaho, just thirty kilometres south of the Canadian border. It is here, says Bateman, that the girls often wait. Carloads of Mormons, adults and children, he says, pass northward through the Porthill border crossing almost daily, headed for school, or church, or a visit with relatives and friends in Bountiful, thirteen kilometres away. They are seldom questioned by Canadian authorities. No one, he maintains, counts the number of those who later return south.
Bateman admits that there are young women who wish nothing more than to go to Bountiful and have babies. Especially if the father is to be Winston Blackmore. His is, after all, superior seed. And compared to Colorado City, windswept and surrounded by desert, Bountiful is a green Eden. Unlike the controversial Jeffs, Winston Blackmore, the grapevine reports, is a nice guy. He plays guitar. He's a good talker, charming, and well off. His wives sing together in a choir. Most importantly, he's the bishop; he talks to God.
But in more troubling cases, says Bateman, any Colorado City teenage boy perceived as a troublemaker or any teenage girl who expresses an interest in dating is quickly shipped off to Canada to nip any hint of youthful rebellion. Often, the boys are put to work in Bountiful and the girls given as plural wives. "While I've been a teacher," says Bateman, "almost every girl I thought was the best student, Winston got. Or Warren. Or Rulon. The leaders take the best girls. No overweight ones. None with family problems. The beauties, the virgins, the smart ones." The girls Blackmore selects head north to Bountiful and return a year later with their infants, Bateman says. With a shy smile they tell him, "Winston said to me, 'We're in the business of making babies.'"
In October, 2000, Debbie Palmer, aware of the turmoil in Colorado City, renewed her campaign to bring attention to Bountiful and sent a nineteen-page report to Anne McLellan, the federal justice minister. In it, she detailed the efforts the Committee Concerned with Child Abuse in Polygamy has made to expose the alleged transport of underage girls-both north and south-as prospective plural wives to men in Bountiful and Colorado City. For seven months, Palmer heard nothing. During that time, however, Utah tightened its long-ignored polygamy laws -- the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics are, after all, approaching. The new legislation made both performing a marriage without a licence (including celestial marriages) and marrying a girl under sixteen punishable by five years in prison.
The state then laid charges against Thomas Green, a fifty-two-year-old fundamentalist Mormon who was living with his five wives in the Utah desert. Two months ago, just days after the conviction of Green on four counts of bigamy, Palmer finally got a reply from Ottawa. McLellan said it is the provincial government that has responsibility for laying charges in Bountiful in any cases of alleged sexual assault by adult males against underage girls, and that the federal minister of immigration is the proper authority to deal with the alleged cross-border trafficking in young girls. In essence, the justice minister said it was not her turf. Palmer also heard from the Law Commission of Canada: it said it was looking into possibly proposing changes to Canada's polygamy laws. Since then, it has indicated that given the changing cultural and religious make-up of Canadian society, the laws are likely to be relaxed, if changed at all.
On a local level there is little concern about what is going on in Bountiful-little, at least, that is admitted to. When asked about allegations of sexual abuse of underage girls in Bountiful and the reports of young women being shipped in and out of Canada, Brian Ross, the supervisor of the Creston social services department, which includes Bountiful in its jurisdiction, refused to discuss the matter. When Beryl Mason, the B.C. social worker who initially backed Palmer's study, was asked to explain government inaction in Bountiful, she, too, refused to talk. When Creston RCMP corporal Jim Horn was asked about allegations of underage girls entering Canada to become plural wives, he said every one of the twenty Bountiful-bound girls he has fingerprinted for Canadian immigration authorities in recent years was older than sixteen and accompanied by her American husband. Still, the RCMP is asking questions of apostates.
On December 9, 2000, over forty renegade members of the UEP gathered outside Colorado City to discuss the traffic in teen brides between Arizona and B.C. A special investigator from the Utah attorney-general's office was there. The group heard DeLoy Bateman and Jay Beswick, a Utah-based child-abduction expert, claim that between thirty and fifty American girls, some almost certainly fourteen and fifteen, have ended up as plural wives in Bountiful in the last few years. The group heard Craig Chatwin, twenty-eight, say seven of his young sisters had been assigned to marry Bountiful men. The latest had gone to Canada in 1999; she was then, he claimed, thirteen. The group heard Lenore Holm, thirty-eight, describe her efforts to get the Creston RCMP to investigate her sixteen-year-old daughter's move to Bountiful after Holm had fought Colorado City UEP leaders over the proposed assigned marriage of the girl. Winston Blackmore told the RCMP that Holm's daughter had, in fact, fled her apostate mother.
A week later, Bateman met with a second apostate Colorado City teacher, Luanne Fisher, thirty, who had regularly photographed her grade six and seven classes. These two were joined, in turn, by Debbie Palmer and Lorna Blackmore, a banished, fifty-something apostate from Creston, B.C.-and the daughter of one of Bountiful's founders. The group began piecing together, from photos and school records, the precise ages and marital status of Colorado City girls-the list runs to three pages-now in Bountiful. All were believed to be under eighteen when they headed north.
A woman from Bountiful who asked not to be identified wasn't surprised. "I hear it all the time: 'Winston's got new wives from Arizona.' Last summer, a girl told me she was Winston's twenty-fourth wife . . . and he's got more since then. The girls appear and disappear depending on the closeness of authorities to the problem. If there's a lot of publicity, the marriages stop."
It is difficult to square the circle, to weigh such a seemingly peaceful place as Bountiful against its sensational secrets. Bountiful is a closed community. Winston Blackmore won't talk with the press. And his followers are regularly reminded-with a Biblical admonition-of the UEP view of outsiders: "Cast not your pearls before swine."
In his cluttered office, the affable principal of Bountiful's school, forty-two-year-old Merrill Palmer, sits beneath a poster that reads: "Rule # 1: The Boss Is Right. Rule # 2: If the Boss Is Wrong, See Rule #1."
Behind a half-opened door stand five unsecured rifles. As one of 350 independent schools in B.C., Bountiful receives a funding allotment from the provincial government of about $550,000 annually. This covers almost all the costs of the 200-student school. A 10 percent tithe from Bountiful followers covers the rest. Despite the rumours of sexual abuse of children within Bountiful, educational inspectors have not discovered evidence of a single problem. Academically, however, student achievement is lacklustre. A study of B.C.'s independent schools last year showed that over 50 percent of grade seven students in Bountiful rated "poor" in reading, writing, and math skills. Judged by what's on the school's walls, it is religion that's most important. Posters of Mormon prophets, some bearded, all stern, including the current clean-shaven prophet Rulon T. Jeffs, vie with scores of Biblical quotations.
That education and religious indoctrination are inextricably linked is made clear by a final exam issued by the school's biology teacher. The first page covers taxonomy and phyla. The last page of the exam states: "I want to hear your personal viewpoints on the following important topics. . . celestial/placement marriage . . . obedience . . . raising children . . . [the] united effort plan. " Were a student to respond in the wrong way, apostates say, the youth might find himself heading south to reflect for a while in the remote Arizona desert.
In another room in the school sits teacher Richard Blackmore, one of Winston's elder brothers, with his feet up and a history lesson chalked on the nearby blackboard. He admits that most people in Bountiful are poor and that what jobs there once were are disappearing in the face of the recent collapse in the B.C. logging industry. Mills have been shut down; loggers laid off; trucks idled. Several businesses in Creston, owned by Bountiful members, have been forced to close. Even the mattress factory run by Bountiful women has stopped getting orders from outside the community.
Winston does divvy up some of the school's education allotment to twenty single mothers-the celestial wives of polygamous husbands -- who each earn $700 a month as teaching assistants. He also runs a successful wood-treatment plant in nearby Cranbrook. But a lot of people survive on seasonal jobs: picking fruit, digging potatoes, processing chickens, doing some small-scale logging, or helping harvest the commune's estimated 1,000 hectares of canola and timothy. Unlike Colorado City, Arizona, where there are reported to be scores of UEP single mothers on welfare, Blackmore boasts that no one receives welfare in his community.
Outsiders who have had any business dealings with the people of Bountiful say they are hard-working and scrupulously honest.
But people in nearby Creston are curious-as almost anyone would be-about the practicalities of a polygamous family. How does it work? In Bountiful, about half of all the marriages are polygamous-the number of wives that men have, some joke, is in inverse ratio to their potency.
Young men have, on average, one wife. By thirty, two. By forty, three. There are only three men in Bountiful, all over forty, with five wives or more. The exception to this graduated scale is Winston Blackmore. In most cases, the logistics of intercourse in families with a couple of wives is not complex. Either the man visits his wives or they visit him.
Among polygamists with many wives, such as Winston Blackmore, the original and legal wife often becomes a sort of "House Mother," calculating each of her sister-wives' time of ovulation, then shuttling her into the husband's bed on the most auspicious night. And what of the wifeless young men in Bountiful or Colorado City, who fall, inevitably, on the zero side of the equation? Some bide their time, queuing up for their leader's blessing. Some complain and, by doing so, demonstrate they are not made of superior fibre. Departure is their reward.
Although UEP leaders steadfastly maintain the young women and men can choose their spouses, the apostates counter that this is-to put it bluntly-a lie. The UEP dissenters say they all know of cases in which adolescents, especially the girls, succumb to the directives of the sect and the coercion of their fathers to accept without question the alleged word of God. Girls in the UEP are, after all, the property of their father until sixteen and, after that, the property of the sect's priests. Men decide, women yield. Without marriage-the young women are reminded-they can never enter the Kingdom of God.
And concealed beneath modest Christian appearances, say the apostates, is a fierce sexual obsession. "You can call it Waco," says one. "You can call it Jonestown. In every place, somebody controls your mind."
The investigations and the growing determination by apostates and even some people still in Bountiful to bring change could mean there's turmoil on the horizon for the community. In mid-summer, however, all seems quiet. The air is warm and redolent of smoke from a big forest fire south of the border. The hay is green and ready for cutting. The mountain summits are snowless. In the little village, children race around. Men hit golf balls on the new-and some think quite risqué-driving range. Women tend the side-yard vegetable gardens. No one will talk about Debbie Palmer, currently living in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Winston Blackmore thinks she's crazy.
But Palmer is determined to expose what she claims is a legacy of sexual abuse that lies at the community's dark heart-an abuse she says has long been concealed by government inaction and Blackmore's arguments of religious freedom. Few will mention Lorna Blackmore, the village's apostate matriarch, who says secrecy and denial continue to hide some horrible stories. No one in Bountiful will explain why the apostates allege that many young women have passed, seemingly unnoticed, north and south through the Porthill border post on their way to arranged, polygamous marriages. None of these issues is ever discussed, at least with outsiders. On the road to Bountiful, spelled out in white stones by the school, are the words "keep sweet."