October 3, 2005
The Merry Wives
A longtime haven of polygamy is feeling the heat from police—and from within. Inside the embattled B.C. community.
By Laura Blue
By Laura Blue
The children of Bountiful, a rural community nestled in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia, seem happy, untroubled and close-knit within their large families, at least if Ruth Lane’s kids are any indication. Hers play outside with those of her sister Diana in a neatly kept, open space at the entrance to the residential area. Homes in Bountiful can be large, and that’s a good thing. Ruth Lane and her six kids share theirs with two other moms and their 12 kids. But then, their communal living arrangement is unusual: Ruth and her sister also share a husband.
For 50 years, members of a breakaway Mormon sect have been illegally practicing polygamy in Bountiful, to the quiet consternation of their neighbors in the nearby town of Creston and to the general disregard of most other Canadians. But Bountiful’s days of uncontested defiance—and of child brides, according to former adherents—may be ending. Already its days of privacy are gone. Across the border, police in Arizona and Utah have made arrests in kindred communities, and an internal rift has prompted hundreds of onetime practitioners to go public with their strange stories. In Canada the r.c.m.p. is working to build cases, spurred on by the B.C. attorney general’s office, which has received scores of complaints. Newspaper readers want to know why, for decades, no one has stopped young teenage girls from marrying adult men—a dubiously legal move—and why polygamy has been allowed to flourish.
Winston Blackmore, 49, a former bishop of that sect in Bountiful, is chatting at the local midwifery center one recent morning. He says he dislikes the salacious stories of multiple sex partners and young brides. He always hears about how many wives he has (at least 20, according to people who have left the community; he won’t say) and how many children he has fathered (“lots,” he says, with a broad smile). A straightforward, baseball-cap-wearing, gray-haired man known affectionately by his relatives as Wink, Blackmore gives a more appealing account of how people live in Bountiful. “Our story is about our faith and about our determination,” he says. “I am what I am. I was born what I am.”
Blackmore was born a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (flds)—a splinter group of mainstream Mormonism, which renounced polygamy in 1890. Today almost all of Bountiful’s 1,500 residents are related—by marriage if not by blood—to six men who settled in the Creston Valley 50 years ago. Still, they say, their faith is not blind. “It’s the lifestyle I chose. I wanted it,” says Ruth Lane, 31, who moved to Bountiful from Arizona 10 years ago to become Blackmore’s 10th wife.
But salacious stories keep appearing, and more tellingly, so do police officers. The R.C.M.P., concerned it might have missed something in previous investigations that produced no charges, has spent 14 months reviewing its files from Bountiful—reports on everything from stolen bicycles to polygamy. Now, in what a r.c.m.p. spokesman concedes is “an extraordinary step,” officers are pursuing mere rumors, not formal allegations, that minors as young as 14 were married to adult men and underage women were smuggled across the U.S. border to and from other flds communities like Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
Polygamy is illegal in Canada. flds members officially marry only their first spouse, making additional religious marriages harder to trace—but still not legal. B.C. has refrained from prosecuting polygamy, however, because some experts have warned that the law would probably not stand up to a constitutional challenge based on religious freedoms. Other legal experts dispute that opinion—among them the province’s new attorney general, Wally Oppal, and federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.
And the other alleged crimes? Whether they’re happening is less clear. Nearly everyone who has been part of the flds knows someone—or is someone—who “married” at 15 or younger. That’s a year older than the age of consent but a year younger than the minimum age to legally marry in B.C. The teen-pregnancy rate in the Creston health area, which includes Bountiful, is more than three times the provincial average. The most troubling stories of all, however, are those of child molestation, detailed gruesomely in a recent book by Dave Perrin and Debbie Palmer, Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy, Palmer’s painfully frank memoir of a childhood in Bountiful decades ago. Palmer and Perrin believe abuse could still be happening. It’s hard for police to know, since Bountiful remains mostly closed to non-flds members.
In the U.S., authorities have successfully targeted the flds, and Bountiful is feeling the effects. In June, Mohave County, Arizona, indicted one of Bountiful’s most prominent figures, flds president and self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs. He is charged with sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit it. The prophet is in hiding and in August was added to the fbi’s most-wanted list, with the warning that he should be considered armed and dangerous. This summer, nine other flds men were also charged with sexual conduct with minors in Arizona, after authorities pored over birth and marriage records to make their cases. Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff, who is also investigating the flds, asserts that more such crimes have been committed in his state: “I’m absolutely convinced. It keeps me awake at night.”
Utah authorities have seized the flds’s biggest asset, the United Effort Plan Trust, registered in that state. Essentially a landholding trust, it controls roughly three-quarters of Bountiful’s land—and with it nearly all the farms, ranches and homes. Utah officials removed the board this summer after members failed to represent the trust in legal actions, including one suit that alleges Jeffs repeatedly raped a young boy.
But appointing new trustees will be tough, since the flds community may be disintegrating. Blackmore’s group—which broke away from Jeffs in 2002 but still considers itself flds—comprises about half of Bountiful’s residents. Although Blackmore was the bishop for 17 years, his more liberal movement is trying to distance itself from purported criminal behavior (other than charges of polygamy) associated with the community in the past. Jeffs’ followers, meanwhile, have been instructed not to associate with any nonfollowers. Few in Jeffs’ flock still go to Creston, where Bountiful residents usually shop. Jeffs’ bishop in Bountiful lives in a secluded compound bounded by the Goat River gorge and a thick forest. (Neither the bishop nor the school principal of Jeffs’ faction in Bountiful returned phone messages for this article.)
Since parts of Bountiful can be so closed, a picture of life there is stitched together largely through the stories of those who have left—people like Suzie Blackmore. Like most of the girls in her Colorado City class, she was 16 when she told an flds bishop she was ready to marry. After visiting Bountiful with a cousin, she secretly hoped to marry Ben Blackmore (Winston’s nephew), then 19. “I was really afraid I was going to have to marry his father,” she says with a laugh. So she was thrilled when her wish came true. She drove from Arizona on a Tuesday in October—one day after she was given the news. Ben Blackmore was informed of the match on Thursday, and the couple wed on Friday.
Seven years later, photos from the wedding still hang in the couple’s Cranbrook, B.C., duplex, along with pictures of their four kids and of Ben and his brothers as children—pictures that once belonged to Ben’s mother. His mother gave up all the photos, he says, when the family tore apart following the flds schism. As a follower of Warren Jeffs, she couldn’t talk freely with her sons and husband, who do not follow Jeffs. She recently remarried another Bountiful man. “How could she give away all the photos and pretend she didn’t have us?” Ben asks.
Imagine such family rifts played out several hundred times, and you get a sense of life in Bountiful today. Marriages have ended. Parents have disowned children. And for the most part, members of the two camps still live side by side in the mountain valley; they have simply stopped talking to each other. Many teenage boys and young men have been driven out for failing to adhere to Jeffs’ strict lifestyle. When Ben and Suzie were in Jeffs’ church—they have both since left the flds—they gave up TV and organized sports and listened only to what Ben calls “homemade religious music.” Suzie bought audiocassettes of Jeffs preaching to teach her kids about the flds. Ex–church members have smuggled out similar tapes—allegedly played in flds schools—on which Jeffs explains in an eerie, lulling tone that women need to be subservient to their husbands and that black people are representatives of the devil.
Winston Blackmore points to Jeffs’ racist line as a clear sign of the groups’ differences. But the groups share much. They follow the same religious texts. In both, dating is prohibited, and followers do not drink coffee or alcoholic beverages. Most Bountiful men work in logging, trucking or ranching. Crucially, in both groups, people generally grow up with aspirations to start work and marry young. Until September 2004, the Bountiful school system lacked Grades 11 and 12.
For Canada, the underlying question about Bountiful’s future is how to balance religious freedoms with safeguards to prevent abuse. Law enforcers probably could not halt polygamy if they tried. Practitioners would be driven underground. Then abuses would be harder to discover, and even the most loving parents might avoid outside help—like medical attention—for their children. In many ways, insularity is a bigger problem than polygamy. It’s the main reason Jeffs, whose followers are cut off from other ways of life, is considered a threat. Some law enforcers fear Jeffs’ hideout could turn into the next Waco or Jonestown. “I fear for that,” says a former Bountiful resident.
Concern about antagonizing those they intend to help means that even Bountiful’s most vociferous critics offer only careful suggestions for change. A 1993 report, “Life in Bountiful”—penned in part by Palmer—recommended an interministry team to address social and criminal issues. A Creston group, Altering Destiny Through Education, is determined to revamp the schools to give children a better sense of options open to them. Audrey Vance, a co-chair of the group, had lived in Creston 40 years before she saw the community’s former midwife, Jane Blackmore—Winston’s first wife and now his ex-wife (she has left Bountiful)—explaining on television that she had delivered young teens’ babies. It was a wake-up call for Vance. Now she works with a dozen other Creston residents to remind the provincial government that Bountiful schools teach a lifestyle that’s against the law.
Bountiful is making changes too. The Jeffs-run Bountiful school added Grades 11 and 12 to its K-10 program last year, and Blackmore’s group, which founded its own K-10 school after the split, hopes to add the senior grades soon.
Education might help people who leave Bountiful find their bearings more easily. Suzie Blackmore isn’t unhappy about her upbringing. Still, she says, “if you would have met me a year ago, I was a lot more naive. I was really scared.” She hopes to get a job soon, and one day she would like to write a book. But at 23, with four children and no education, it’s not easy. The transition from Bountiful to nearby communities can be even more difficult because of neighbors who are less than sympathetic. Ray Blackmore, 20—nephew of Winston, cousin of Ben—likes extreme sports, plays in a rock band and drives an impressive white Camaro around Bountiful, blasting rap music. But he doesn’t dare go to Creston parties by himself. When he first left Bountiful two years ago, Blackmores who did go alone were beaten up by Creston locals. Just one more reason for people in Bountiful to stay put. “They certainly can choose to do something else,” says Jane Blackmore, “but the road is difficult.” Yet, as she has shown, it still can lead you out of town.