Calgary Herald

Dark clouds over Bountiful

Polygamist saga takes ominous turn with arrival of a self-styled prophet and his bodyguard -- who was in possession of ammunition clips for assault weapons

Daphne Bramham

CanWest News Service
Sunday, August 15, 2004

Last week, Canada Customs officers searched the car of an American driving across the border between Idaho and British Columbia .

The man is known to customs officials, says Jennifer Leenhouts, chair of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union's women's committee.

He is a bodyguard to Warren Jeffs, the new prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

Jeffs was already in Canada , having flown into Cranbrook , a 90-minute drive from the polygamous FLDS community of Bountiful , near Creston in southeastern B.C.

What the officers found in the bodyguard's vehicle were ammunition clips -- but no ammunition -- for a semi-automatic assault weapon, and some rifle shells. Because they didn't find semi-automatic weapons or any other guns, and because the man's papers were in order, he was allowed to enter Canada .

Within the last two weeks, two "brides" -- polygamous "wives" -- from Bountiful went to the United States to live with their American husbands. An unknown number of others were turned back at the U.S. border after they failed to produce proper documentation.

People with close ties to Bountiful confirmed that one of the two is the daughter of Jim Oler, Jeffs's key lieutenant in Bountiful . The brides were assigned to their husbands by Jeffs during his visit. The FLDS believes that only the prophet gets a revelation from God about who can marry.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church that is under investigation by the RCMP and B.C. government because of allegations of sexual exploitation, sexual and physical abuse, trafficking in women across the U.S. border and teaching racism and white supremacy in its private -- but publicly funded -- school.

What divides the FLDS from mainstream Mormons is polygamy. While FLDS followers believe polygamy is the way to heaven, mainstream Mormons renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Tensions within the FLDS and fears of violence have been increasing since Jeffs took control in September 2002 following the death of his father, Prophet Rulon Jeffs. Warren Jeffs circumvented the usual succession order, and to maintain control over the past year, he has excommunicated scores of senior leaders, including Winston Blackmore, the former bishop of Bountiful .

Jeffs declared them apostates, pariahs doomed to eternal damnation.

In Utah and Arizona , Jeffs has evicted men from homes they built on FLDS-owned property. Others have returned home to find themselves locked out of their own homes, their wives and children missing.

The women and children were later redistributed to others loyal to Jeffs.

Because of Blackmore's enduring popularity among more than half of Bountiful 's 1,000 residents, Jeffs has yet to do anything so dramatic in Bountiful .

However, many fear that day is coming. Confirmation that Jeffs's bodyguard was in Canada added weight to rumours that Jeffs was issuing eviction orders to his loyalists to carry out in Bountiful .

The rift is another complication for investigators both here and in the United States . But it may also provide an opportunity, because some of the excommunicated may decide to provide evidence to back the allegations against FLDS leaders.

That's certainly what Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy attorney-general in Utah , was hoping for when very senior FLDS members were excommunicated. So far, it hasn't happened.

Nearly four years ago, Utah hired a special investigator for what it calls "closed-end societies" to try to get to the bottom of the allegations involving a variety of polygamist groups, especially North America's largest, the FLDS, which has its headquarters in the communities of Hildale , Utah and Colorado City , Ariz.

There have been a couple of successful prosecutions, but it's tough slogging.

As Torgensen said Friday, it's impossible to infiltrate the community, which does not accept converts.

"It's easier to turn somebody in the Mafia than these people. In the Mafia, it's a lifestyle. With these people, it's their soul. It's an entirely different set-up."

Late last month, Jeffs's nephew filed a civil suit alleging that he was repeatedly molested and sodomized by Warren Jeffs and his two brothers over a two-year period when he was five and six years old. The nephew, who is now 21, alleges the assaults took place in the basement of a Salt Lake City private school run by the FLDS.

Utah Attorney-General Mark Shurtleff told the Arizona Republic that his state's criminal investigators would look into all the allegations in that suit.

In addition to the specific charges of sexual assault, the 24-page suit alleges that Warren Jeffs ruined the lives of an estimated 200 young men who were expelled from Colorado City and Hildale between the ages of 13 and 21 after they began to show an interest in girls their age -- girls largely destined to become plural wives of the leaders.

This is the same Warren Jeffs who now has unprecedented access to Bountiful 's children and to their education as spiritual leader and director of Bountiful school.

One of the things he teaches is that FLDS followers do not have to obey man's laws, only God's laws, and that God's laws are revealed to them through him, the prophet, who gets revelations directly from God.

"Priesthood is the celestial law," Jeffs said in a sermon last year. "Priesthood is the government, power and authority of God restored from heaven to earth, given to man; and it governs and controls all things . . . ."

Jeffs is subject to investigations in two states for tax and welfare fraud is the one who will cash a B.C. government cheque for nearly $500,000. The cheque is for Bountiful school this fall. Last year, it received $460,826 in government grants.

Education Minister Tom Christensen has said he's heard complaints about the school, but has no evidence that would cause him to stop funding the school.

Although Blackmore continues to be supported by the majority of residents of Bountiful , Jeffs's base is the 10,000-strong, twin communities of Colorado City and Hildale. From there, he controls the United Effort Plan trust, which has land and holdings valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

But Blackmore is fashioning himself as a kinder, gentler leader to the 600 or so people who remain loyal to him. He's recently started allowing his followers more freedom to do things such as watch TV, use the Internet and even adhere less strictly to the dress code.

It's this more relaxed attitude that is attracting disaffected and excommunicated Americans to his side.

And Blackmore is encouraging that by building new communes in Porthill, Idaho, just across the border from Bountiful, and in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.

(c) The Calgary Herald 2004