October 3, 2005
The Merry Wives
A longtime haven of polygamy is feeling the heat from policeand from within. Inside the embattled B.C. community.
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 Lanes 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 thats 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
days of uncontested defianceand of child brides, according to former
adherentsmay 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
working to build cases, spurred on by the B.C. attorney generals 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 mena
dubiously legal moveand 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 wont 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 (
splinter group of mainstream Mormonism, which renounced polygamy in 1890. Today
almost all of
1,500 residents are
relatedby marriage if not by bloodto six men who settled in the Creston
Valley 50 years ago. Still, they say, their faith is not blind. Its the
lifestyle I chose. I wanted it, says Ruth Lane, 31, who moved to Bountiful
from Arizona 10 years ago to become Blackmores 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 Bountifulreports on everything from stolen
bicycles to polygamy. Now, in what a
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
Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
Polygamy is illegal in Canada.
members officially marry only their first spouse,
making additional religious marriages harder to tracebut 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 opinionamong
them the provinces new attorney general, Wally
and federal Justice Minister Irwin
And the other alleged crimes? Whether
theyre happening is less clear. Nearly everyone who has been part of the
knows someoneor is someonewho married at 15 or
younger. Thats 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, Palmers painfully frank memoir of a
childhood in Bountiful decades ago. Palmer and Perrin believe abuse could still
be happening. Its hard for police to know, since Bountiful remains mostly
closed to non-
In the U.S., authorities have successfully
, and Bountiful is feeling the
effects. In June, Mohave County, Arizona, indicted one of
most prominent figures,
self-proclaimed prophet Warren
. 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
most-wanted list, with the warning that he should be considered armed and dangerous.
This summer, nine other
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
, who is also investigating the
, asserts that more such crimes have been committed in
his state: Im absolutely convinced. It keeps me awake at night.
Utah authorities have seized the
biggest asset, the United Effort Plan Trust,
registered in that state. Essentially a landholding trust, it controls roughly
landand 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
repeatedly raped a young boy.
But appointing new trustees will be tough,
community may be disintegrating.
Blackmores groupwhich broke away from
but still considers itself
comprises about half
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.
meanwhile, have been instructed not to associate with any
flock still go to Creston, where
Bountiful residents usually shop.
Bountiful lives in a secluded compound bounded by the Goat River gorge and a
thick forest. (Neither the bishop nor the school principal of
faction in Bountiful returned phone messages for
Since parts of Bountiful can be so closed, a
picture of life there is stitched together largely through the stories of those
who have leftpeople like Suzie Blackmore. Like most of the girls in her
Colorado City class, she was 16 when she told an
bishop she was ready to marry. After visiting Bountiful with a cousin, she
secretly hoped to marry Ben Blackmore (Winstons 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 Octoberone 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 couples
, B.C., duplex,
along with pictures of their four kids and of Ben and his brothers as
childrenpictures that once belonged to Bens mother. His mother gave up all
the photos, he says, when the family tore apart following the
schism. As a follower of Warren
she couldnt talk freely with her sons and husband, who do not follow
. She recently remarried another Bountiful man. How
could she give away all the photos and pretend she didnt 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
When Ben and Suzie were in
both since left the
they gave up TV and
organized sports and listened only to what Ben calls homemade religious
music. Suzie bought audiocassettes of
preaching to teach her kids about the
members have smuggled out similar tapesallegedly played in
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
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
For Canada, the underlying question about
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 helplike medical attentionfor their children. In many ways,
insularity is a bigger problem than polygamy. Its the main reason
, whose followers are cut off from other ways of life,
is considered a threat. Some law enforcers fear
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
critics offer only careful suggestions for change. A 1993 report, Life in
Bountifulpenned in part by Palmerrecommended an
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 communitys former midwife,
Jane BlackmoreWinstons 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 thats against the law.
Bountiful is making changes too. The
-run Bountiful school added Grades 11 and 12 to its
K-10 program last year, and Blackmores 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 isnt 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,
its not easy. The transition from Bountiful to nearby communities can be even
more difficult because of neighbors who are less than sympathetic. Ray
Blackmore, 20nephew of Winston, cousin of Benlikes extreme sports, plays in a
rock band and drives an impressive white
around Bountiful, blasting rap music. But he doesnt dare go to Creston parties
by himself. When he first left Bountiful two years ago,
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.