Wives to sue polygamist spouses

Women say celestially arranged marriages were forced

Fabian Dawson

Thursday, November 14, 2002

VANCOUVER. Debbie Palmer says she was 15 when the prophet took her by the hand in to a bedroom and ordered her to marry a 57-year-old man.

She was his fifth wife. He was her step-grandfather. Most of the 30 children he had were older than her. It was, she will claim in a law suit to be filed next week the first of her three celestially arranged marriages.

The 47-year-old Palmer and 35 other women who grew up in polygamous communes run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taking to court the men they say forced them to marry as teenagers. The women claim systematic abuse at the hands of the churchs elders and its priesthood or male followers.

The key petitioners say they ex pert another 150 women from the United States to join the class-action suit, to be filed in the B.C. Supreme Court. The principal claims are for abuse and we expect sister claims to be filed in the United States after the filing in B.C. which is imminent, said Vaughn Marshall of the Calgary-based national class action specialists, Docken and Company.

Mr. Marshall said the operators of the sect and the women who will be involved in the suit come from both sides of the border.

He said there will also be a claim for unjust enrichment by the church elders, who are alleged to have become rich off the backs of the followers.

Ms. Palmer, raised in a polygamous commune in Lister, B.C., will be the subject of a documentary titled Leaving Bountiful to be aired on Global TV this Saturday.

The 1awauit details of which will be announced after a preview screening of the show today, is expected to expose the inner workings of the secretive sect where autocratic leaders allegedly demand and get complete-obedience, decide who marries whom and where followers live.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has between 10,000 and 20,000 members, mostly in Utah and Arizona, and about 1,000 in the East Kootenay commune of Bountiful in Lister. Other members live in Mexico, Alberta and Idaho.

The fundamentalists broke away from the Mormon Church after it was pressured into disavowing polygamy in 1886 in exchange for the statehood of Utah.

The planned lawsuit comes in the wake of the death of Rulon T. Jeffs, the self-styled prophet of the polygamists who lived in a gated desert compound on the Utah- Arizona border.

Mr. Jeffs, 93, who had approximately 75 wives and scores of children, was also the head of the churchs financial arm, the United Effort Plan. He reportedly con trolled more than US$200-mil lion in assets.

Prior to his death, the autocratic leader, who always preached perfect obedience produces perfect faith, sat on the board of several U.S. companies.

Mr. Jeffs had several mansions in the Salt Lake city area and lived at one time in a 8,300 square feet home with 23 bedrooms, two kitchens, 10 baths and four fire places. A smaller home next door had a total of 22 rooms.

In B.C. the church-related assets include vast tracts of land in the East Kootenays, a huge sawmill in Cranbrook, a wood preservation plant, a mattress factory in Creston, several houses, livestock, trucks and heavy machinery and alfalfa farms that send bales of feed to Japan. At one time the commune had two planes.

The B.C. commune was until recently led by businessman Winston Blackmore, 46. Mr. Black- more, who has 30 wives and more than 100 children, is the communes bishop, chief executive officer of its businesses and trustee of its property and superintendent of the local school that gets about $150,000 a year in taxpayer funding.

Weeks before his death, Mr. Jeffs visited Bountiful to denounce Mr. Blackmore and to consolidate a power base for his son, Warren Jeffs his chosen successor.

Mr. Jeffs ordered followers not to listen to Mr. Blakemores sermons, ordered Mr. Blackmore to relinquish control of his junior wives, and place his assets under the direct control of the United Effort Plan.

The move has triggered a power struggle for control of the church assets, which is threatening to fracture the church into smaller breakaway groups.

Church members in B.C. and the U.S. over the last few years have been the subject of investigations of sexual and physical abuse, trafficking in teenage brides and under aged girls, welfare fraud and statutory rape.

Flora Jessop, who left the polygamous commune of Hildale 16 years ago after being married off to her first cousin and accusing her father of sexual abuse said some 150 women in the U.S. have indicated they will join the B.C. law suit.

I think the case is going to wake up the world as to whats going on in these communes, slid the 33- year-old Jessop in a telephone interview from Phoenix yesterday.

Neither Warren Jeffs nor Mr. Blackmore responded to calls for comment.

Copyright 2002 The Province