After a lengthy police probe into Canada’s only polygamous community, British Columbia Attorney-General Wally Oppal has appointed a special prosecutor to rule on whether criminal charges should be laid against leaders at Bountiful, a secretive sect near the U.S. border.
This wasn’t the development anti-polygamist activists were hoping for, nor expected from Oppal, who has long been critical of the conduct of leaders of the Canadian branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Activists wanted B.C. authorities to follow the lead of U.S. officials who last year charged American FLDS leader Warren Jeffs with sex crimes for his role in arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin. Canadian authorities believe underage girls are routinely married off to older men at the fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful, B.C.
For years, they have been watching the moves of Winston Blackmore, the one-time Canadian FLDS leader.
In an interview earlier this year at a lumberyard he owns near Creston, B.C., Blackmore told The Globe and Mail he doubts if B.C. authorities will ever collect enough evidence to charge him.
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Blackmore, who is said to have sired 100 children with more than 20 wives, said if underage girls were married at Bountiful, their parents were to blame — not him.
“This Attorney-General is nothing more than … prejudiced, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I think that guy has an agenda, he has a political agenda, and he’s very biased. … I think he’s biased against polygamy.”
This week Oppal said legal experts have warned that polygamy charges could be ruled unconstitutional. Police have also been hampered by uncooperative witnesses, he said.
“The religious rights of a particular sect or a particular person will trump any right to prosecute,” Oppal told a news conference in Victoria. “In other words, there is a fundamental religious right for a person to engage in acts of polygamy. That’s what’s been suggested to us. I’m not so sure that’s a correct legal position.”
Oppal said he is concerned that women and children have been sexually exploited at Bountiful, but he won’t lay charges unless he’s reasonably sure they can stand up in court. To that end, he appointed Richard Peck, a top criminal lawyer, to review the file. Oppal said he hopes Peck will finish the review in about a month.
The police probe, which was completed last fall, has been reviewed by four lawyers, including the assistant deputy attorney general.
In the town of Creston, adjacent to Bountiful, anti-polygamy activists were disappointed.
Linda Price, who has been lobbying the government for years to clamp down on polygamy, said she had hoped she would be celebrating this week. She questioned the need for yet another lawyer to look at the case.
“It’s time for a charge to be laid,” she said.
Bountiful girls often marry in their teens and are taught to be obedient to their husbands. The community is the largest FLDS colony outside its U.S headquarters of Colorado City, a town that straddles the Utah and Arizona border. Residents of the two communities, especially brides, shuffle back and forth between the United States and Canada.