The peace of a secretive polygamous sect that has quietly practised its controversial – and illegal – way of life in a remote part of Canada for more than 60 years is about to be shattered.
Murmurings about alleged sexual abuse and forced marriage within the 1,000-strong community of Bountiful have reached fever pitch as women have fled the group with tales of exploitation.
The “escaped wives” claim that girls in their early teens have been compelled to wed middle-aged men and have been routinely trafficked between Canada and the group’s fellow Mormon communities in Utah and Arizona.
They also complain of biased and truncated schooling that brainwashes children into following the sect’s way of life and leaves them ill-equipped to live outside its confines.
Geoff Plant, the attorney general of the western Canadian province of British Columbia, has now launched an extensive investigation into the allegations.
“It’s child abuse of the worst kind, within a religious context,” said Audrey Vance, co-founder of a support group for former Bountiful wives in the nearby town of Creston. “One woman who left said what goes on out there is evil.
“This is Canada’s dirty little secret, but no one round here wants to believe what’s going on.”
The community was founded in 1947 by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a group that split from the Mormon Church. Lying about 320 miles south-west of Calgary, near the US border, it occupies a sublimely bucolic spot at the foot of the Kootenay mountains.
Bountiful does not appear on any map. There is no sign indicating its cluster of homes, some makeshift, others extensive with well-tended gardens littered with children’s toys. But there are “no trespassing” notices at its edge. Few residents of Creston venture in. They lower their voices when asked about Bountiful, and explain that while they disapprove of their neighbours’ lifestyle, they do not wish them ill.
Outsiders are not so sure. “Careful,” a holidaying father told his teenage children heading off to buy ice cream. “This is the teenage pregnancy capital of the world.”
Although polygamy is illegal under Canada’s criminal code, authorities have long turned a blind eye to Bountiful because the country’s Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom.
However, demands for an official inquiry have grown louder. One of those calling for action is Debbie Palmer, 49, who fled Bountiful in 1988, taking her six children. When she was 15, she claims, she was forced to marry a 54-year-old man, becoming his sixth wife, and was later “re-assigned” to two other husbands before escaping.
Her sister, Jane Blackmore, a midwife, left Bountiful in 2002 with one of her seven children and is fighting a custody battle with the husband she is divorcing. He is Winston Blackmore, 47, who calls himself the Bishop of Bountiful, and is said to have at least 25 other “celestial” wives and more than 80 children.
“We know of girls as young as 13 involved in trafficking across the border,” claimed Mrs Palmer, who now lives in Saskatchewan. “And some have been exposed to horrifically abusive situations.
“What’s happening in Bountiful is very worrying. There is a lack of information and education that means young people don’t have choices.
“We have really terrible concerns about what is going to happen there.”
The campaigners hope the inquiry will lead to prosecutions under the province’s sexual exploitation laws that seek to protect younger teenagers.
The Bountiful community was split by an internal dispute two years ago. Mr Blackmore, the leader of one group, appears confident, despite the investigation. “I have nothing to hide,” he said.
His sister, Marlene Palmer, 45, a mother of six who was born in Bountiful, said: “So many lies have been told about us that we welcome this investigation.
“We hope they leave no rock unturned so everyone can see we are not hiding anything. Then maybe we can be left alone.
“No one is forced to be here. They can do whatever they want. Some of my children have chosen different lifestyles, but I still love them. They chose to leave. They did not leave because they were abused.”
She defended polygamy. “Legally, the men are only married to one woman. [The other wives] feel like we are friends.”
Marsha Chatwin, 27, and her sister, Zelpha, 30, who are both married to Mr Blackmore, agreed.
“I love living the way I live,” said Ms Chatwin, a mother of four. “I would never change it. It was our own free will and choice and I want everybody to know that.
“We’re real close. We’re all family. There’s always someone around and you’re never alone.”
Meanwhile, Mr Blackmore’s Share the Light website warns Bountiful residents to brace themselves for the investigation.
“Discrimination. This is about discrimination,” he writes, but adds: “Like all persecutions, I am sure we will get through it.”