VANCOUVER (CP) – A woman who escaped from B.C.’s fundamentalist Mormon commune says the group’s leaders will be battling for control of the sect after the arrest of so-called prophet Warren Jeffs in Nevada.
Debbie Palmer said in an interview that Winston Blackmore of Bountiful, B.C., will be assessing his options for taking power over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Blackmore was removed as bishop of Bountiful by Jeffs and replaced with her brother, Jim Oler.
“I know that Winston has been positioning himself to be a available as a leader for any of the ones who have become disillusioned,” Palmer said Wednesday.
But that could be difficult.
While Oler is Jeffs’ point man and “enforcer” in Bountiful, he is also Blackmore’s nephew. The two had been close at one point.
“The lines are quite firmly drawn,” Palmer said. “The fact that Jim accepted the position under Warren to be a bishop was quite a shock to all of us because Jim and Winston had been quite close.
“He (Oler) had had a similar position under Winston for many years.
Palmer also said that switching allegiance is a delicate matter in the community.
“The blood is just boiling over there. There’s some really bad feelings right now.”
Jeffs, the self-proclaimed “speaker of God’s will” and leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was wanted in the two U.S. states on suspicion of sexual misconduct for allegedly arranging marriages of underage girls. He was also wanted for fraud.
He was so notorious that he made it onto the FBI’s 10 most wanted list with the likes of Osama Bin Laden.
It had been rumoured he was in British Columbia. Indeed, Blackmore said late last year that Jeffs would have been a fool to have remained in the U.S.
About 1,000 people live on the B.C. land located a stone’s throw from the U.S. border. Half are followers of Jeffs, the other half follow Blackmore.
The situation is so toxic that brothers don’t speak to brothers and women not to their mothers, depending on which leader they follow.
Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas said Jeffs’ arrest should come as a warning to sect adherents in Canada if not to this country’s authorities. He said the concerns that prompted American authorities to act are also present here.
“There still needs to be something done by the Canadian authorities,” Matas says. “It’s not clear that if he did everything he did only in Canada that anybody would ever bother him.
“I don’t see much difference between what Jeffs has done and what some the leaders of . . . the Bountiful community (have done). Their behaviour seems much the same.”
But the RCMP say it’s too early to know whether the U.S. arrest of Jeffs will have an impact on the Canadian investigation into the Bountiful, B.C., community.
Sgt. John Ward has said that Jeffs is not facing any charges in Canada, nor is he a suspect in the Mounties’ ongoing investigation in Bountiful, where allegations of child abuse surfaced years ago.
There have been allegations of human trafficking involving young girls being moved across the border into Canada so they can be married off to older men.
Jeffs’ sect is based in the state-line communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Ward said the Mounties’ probe of Bountiful, a community south of Creston, B.C., is moving ahead.
“We are very close to being able to send a report to Crown counsel” for consideration of criminal charges.
Last month, the attorneys general of B.C., Arizona and Utah met to discuss the polygamy situation in their jurisdictions.
However, any investigations into the polygamous activities of the sect have been hampered by the fact that most witnesses don’t want to testify.
Followers are said to be brainwashed into distrusting authorities and many of the women say they’re happy sharing a husband with several other women.
Jeffs was captured Monday evening on the outskirts of Las Vegas after being on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since May.
He first identified himself as John Findley, using a contact lens receipt from Florida as identification.
Jeffs was being held, awaiting a court hearing Thursday on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Two people travelling with him, wife Naomi Jeffs and a brother, Isaac Steed Jeffs, both 32, were released and will not be charged, FBI agent Steven Martinez said.
Authorities said Jeffs was found with cellphones, laptop computers, wigs and more than $50,000 US in cash when he was captured.