Utah prosecutors crack down on incest and polygamy
Feb. 9 issue – Lu Ann Kingston was 15 when she married her first cousin Jeremy Kingston in a hush-hush 1995 wedding in Bountiful, Utah. As members of a secretive society of “fundamentalist Mormons” whose leaders practiced polygamy, Lu Ann’s family thought nothing of the fact that Jeremy, then 24, was such a close relative—or that he had three other wives. So entwined were the branches of the family tree that Lu Ann’s cousin-husband was also her nephew.
But the Kingstons’ tangled family ties are threatening to unravel, thanks largely to the efforts of Lu Ann and another former Kingston wife, her niece Mary Ann. In 2000, Lu Ann and her two children fled the 1,000-person society that members call The Order, and she later cooperated with state prosecutors cracking down on sexual abuse of teen girls by polygamists. Last week Jeremy Kingston was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading guilty to felony incest. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Kingston, 22, has brought a $110 million civil suit against 242 Order members and 97 companies they operate, claiming that they share collective responsibility for abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and the uncle she married to become his 15th wife. The two men went to prison in 1999 on charges ranging from child abuse to incest.
Mary Ann’s suit argues that Order members are “jointly liable” because her mistreatment grew directly out of the group’s beliefs. (The watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center used a similar strategy of group responsibility to bankrupt the white-supremacist Aryan Nations in 2000 after its security guards assaulted a pair of black motorists.) Mary Ann claims that the Order’s practice of polygamy led her uncle David Kingston, 33, to marry the 16-year-old and sleep with her. When she fled the marriage, her father, John Daniel Kingston, drove her to a family ranch near the Idaho border and whipped her with a leather belt until she passed out. Kingston spokesman Elden Kingston, 65, calls the suit an effort to “extort money” (the Order now controls a financial empire estimated at $100 million). He hints the family’s lawyers would use hardball tactics, claiming Mary Ann experimented with sex and drugs, and that marrying her to her uncle was an attempt to “help that girl.”
In another legal threat to the clan, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is launching a financial probe of the Kingstons (as well as a second polygamous clan). He hopes to bring an organized-crime-style prosecution against the Kingstons, whose high-ranking members run ranches, shopping centers, a real-estate firm and a coal mine. Elden Kingston denies wrongdoing and dismisses the investigation as “just another example of the state’s long history of persecution” of the Kingstons. But for decades after a disastrous 1953 raid wrenched hundreds of children from their parents, Utah officials virtually ignored the sect and other so-called fundamentalists who practice polygamy in defiance of the law and the Mormon Church‘s 1890 ban on plural marriage. The convictions of Mary Ann’s father and uncle ended the laissez-faire period, and public opposition grew last year with the news that polygamy was behind the alleged kidnapping and sexual assault of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart.
Incest is a Kingston tradition. The clan’s leaders have married dozens of first cousins, half sisters and nieces. The Order’s top man, Paul Kingston, counts a half-dozen such relatives among his 20-plus wives, according to ex-members and Attorney General’s investigator Ron Barton. Intermarriage of close relatives dates to Paul’s late father, former leader John Ortell Kingston (who was also Jeremy’s grandfather and Lu Ann’s father). He taught his family that the Kingstons descended from Jesus Christ through a pair of “Jewish princesses,” recalls former member Ron Tucker, 45, another of John Ortell’s sons.
Elden Kingston dismisses the claims of descent from Christ as “fantasy.” But he defends the marriage of cousins and even half siblings. “I think if the person … believes it’s right, and it’s between two consenting adults, that’s entirely up to them,” he says, ignoring that many brides have married before they were 18.
The ongoing attention is having an effect. Former members say Paul Kingston recently had to calm anxious members who feared that Mary Ann’s suit will take away their businesses and savings. Elden Kingston says the crackdown on underage marriages has “changed a lot of individuals’ feelings about young marriages.” But they insist on living their own way. “We pay millions of dollars in taxes,” Elden Kingston complains. “We want to live our life and let everybody else live their life.” For the Order, the days of live and let live may be gone.