Teen brides sue leaders of polygamous commune

Fabian Dawson

The Province

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Debbie Palmer was 15 when the "prophet" took her by the hand into a bed room 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 the first of her three "celestially arranged marriages."

Now 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 the men they say forced them to marry as teenagers to court.

Claiming "systematic abuse" at the hands of the church's elders and its "priesthood" of male followers, the women are scheduled to file a class-action lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court next week.

They expect another 150 women from the U.S. to join the suit.

"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 Co.

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

"Every time I tried to talk to the church elders, including my father, about the abuse my children and I were suffering, they told me to keep silent," said Palmer, who was raised in a polygamous commune in Lister, near Creston, and is one of the principal plaintiffs. Her story is the subject of a documentary entitled Leaving Boun tile! to be aired on Global TV this Saturday.

The lawsuit, 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 demand and receive complete obedience, decide who marries whom and where followers live.

The leaders have the power to remove wives and children from men they consider have fallen, control the taxpayer-funded schools on the communes and are the ultimate law as far as commune members are concerned.

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 on the Bountiful commune 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 lawsuit comes in the wake of the death of Rulon T. Jeffs, the self-styled and never-challenged prophet of the polygamists who lived in a gated desert compound on the Utah-Arizona border.

Jeffs, 93, who had approximately 75 wives, and scores of children, was also the head of the church's financial arm, the United Effort Plan. The man who was held in God like acclaim reportedly controlled more than $200 million US 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, including Hydrapak. Hydrapak manufactured the defective 0-ring that caused the Jan. 15, 1986 , Challenger space-shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts.

Jeffs had several mansions in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area and lived at one time in a 8,300-square-foot home with 23 bed rooms, two kitchens, 10 baths and four fire places.

In B.C., the church-related assets include vast tracts of land in the East Kootenays ,

a sawmill in Cranbrook, a wood-preservation plant, a mattress factory in Creston, several houses, livestock, trucks, heavy machinery and alfalfa farms that send bales of feed to Japan . At one time the commune had two planes.

The commune was until recently led by hockey-crazy businessman Winston Blackmore, 46. Blackmore, who has 30 wives and more than 100 children, remains the commune's bishop, chief executive officer of its businesses, trustee of its property and

superintendent of its school, which receives about $150,000 a year in taxpayer funding.

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

Jeffs ordered followers not to listen to Blackmore's sermons, ordered Blackmore to relinquish control of his junior wives and to 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 it into 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. lawsuit .

"I think the case is going to wake up the world as to what is going on in these communes," Jessop, 33, said from Phoenix , Arizona , yesterday.

Neither the media-shy Warren Jeffs nor Winston Blackmore responded to calls for comment.

B.C. stopped prosecuting polygamists in 1992.


Copyright 2002 The Province