Article written for The Argus student newspaper in March, 2011.
Won a National Journalism Award for Student Journalism with Beyond Borders Media Awards in November 2011.
In the Creston Valley of British Columbia, there lies a quaint, peaceful border town called Bountiful. Canada’s largest polygamist community sits tucked beneath the mountains, quiet and deserted-looking. On closer inspection, one might note a marked similarity in the residents’ appearance; for the most part, they all have similar facial structure and hair colour. A note is found on the door, left by one of the leader’s children or wives: “He’s a monster, *please* rescue me.”
In December of 2008, Winston Blackmore, the leader of the Canada’s largest Polygamist group, situated in Bountiful, B.C., blogged the following: “If you are married and minding your own business, looking after your family and the two of you are virtuous people, should some other virtuous woman (I will add who is old enough to make her own choices in life) want to join your family, and all are agreed, then whose business is that. No one is hurt, no society is hurt, no family is broken, no vows are violated. Celestial implies virtuous.”
Since then, Blackmore has been taken in by police and accused of having over 25 wives, 120 children and for having sold girls as young as 12 to the United States to other Polygamist men.
Blackmore, whose current net worth is over $15 million, was the Bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) for two decades. During this time, he and FLDS Church President Warren Jeffs were the main “fathers” of the commune; in 2006, Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list for unlawful flight in avoidance of prosecutions against him in Utah.
These charges included his alleged arrangement of illegal marriages between underage girls and his adult male followers. He was charged in Arizona under eight counts including incest, sexual conduct with minors, and rape. Jeffs began his 10-year sentence at the Utah State Prison, but his conviction was reversed thanks to incorrect jury instructions. He was then extradited to Texas. Jeffs now faces charges of sexual assault and bigamy in connection with a West Texas ranch raid in 2008. Jeffs was also found guilty of sodomy to his sons, rape of underage girls (between the ages of 14 and 18), and having a wife as young as 12.
Blackmore’s wives range in age; four of them were just 15 when they were married to him in a spiritual ceremony. Three were 17, two were 16, and one was 18. The list of his wives and the names of their 101 children (at the time) range in age from 30 years old to under a year. The information comes from a sworn affidavit signed by RCMP officer Constable Shelley Livingstone, one of the officers involved in the investigation of Bountiful, B.C.
Blackmore was 41 years old when he married two of his 15-year old wives, Shalina Palmer and Lorraine Johnson. Both are illegal American immigrants. Blackmore has never faced sexual exploitation charges, although the RCMP have identified nine child brides.
Jeffs excommunicated Blackmore from the FLDS church in 2002, leaving the community of Bountiful split nearly in two. Recently, the RCMP has found reason to pursue a criminal investigation into the community. The allegations facing Bountiful come from the other side of the divided commune: James Oler has been accused of sending girls off to the U.S. to be married. The court documents find that two 13-year old girls and one 12-year old girl were brought by their parents to the U.S. to be married to Warren Jeffs.
Other girls between the ages of 16 and 18 were brought to the U.S., allegedly by Oler, to be married to American men. The province of British Columbia has recently produced documents allegedly confirming this, and the closing arguments in the trials are set for this spring. One affidavit claims that a 13-year old girl was married to Jeffs, 48 at the time, in Colorado City, Arizona back in 2004. The form notes that the girl’s parents were present. It also claims that two 12-year-old girls were married to Jeffs before being sent off to his FLDS compound in Texas. Testimony in court was heard from several women who claimed to have been trafficked to the U.S. for marriage.
Blackmore says his side of the community has little to no contact with Oler’s, which he insists is much more strict and traditional. Oler’s brother, who left the community at an early age, says Bountiful is a cult where free voices are not allowed. People are assigned a role at an early age and told what to do, he reports; boys were taught to treat girls as “dangerous snakes,” valued for marriage and reproduction.
The task of the prosecution is to prove that polygamy is dangerous, and not simply a harmless facet of religious belief. Some of the factors brought into the spotlight will be teen pregnancies and child brides.
With files from CTV.