BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – Mayor Darrell Kerby never thought much about polygamy until he learned that a splinter faction of Mormon fundamentalists lived in Canada, just 30 miles north of this Idaho Panhandle town.
Then he was shocked to learn that polygamists were moving into his own community, driven north by a leadership rift from their stronghold in Utah.
For Kerby and other Idaho officials, the news was upsetting because it raised concerns about possible child abuse, welfare fraud, trafficking in child brides and other crimes.
“It’s so convoluted in its potential for abuse,” Kerby said last week. “It will not be allowed. We are not going to fall prey to what other communities have.”
Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare is investigating possible welfare fraud and child brides in Boundary County, which has about 10,000 residents, but has found no evidence that is occurring, spokesman Tom Shanahan said.
Idaho law enforcement officers likewise say they have no reports of laws being broken, and are not even sure how many polygamists have moved into the county.
“There’s lots of talk about underage brides, but no one seems to be able to produce one,” said Boundary County Sheriff Greg Sprungl.
The root of the issue appears to be a split in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist group chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his 2003 book, “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
The group has been centered for decades in the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and has maintained an affiliated group of about 1,000 people in a community called Bountiful, just outside the border town of Creston, British Columbia. Warren Jeffs is the overall leader.
The longtime leader of the Bountiful group, Winston Blackmore, has been deposed by Jeffs. Jeffs has since evicted men who were loyal to Blackmore, and reassigned their wives and children to men who were loyal to him.
But Blackmore, long known as the Bishop of Bountiful, has refused to leave the community. It is his supporters from Hildale and Colorado City who Idaho officials believe are moving into Boundary County, to be closer to their spiritual leader.
Idaho legislators have formed a special committee to examine persistent claims that child brides are being transported through the state, as part of exchanges between Bountiful and Utah.
“We are just starting to look into it,” said state Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, who co-sponsored the study proposal.
Dave Kramer, police chief for Bonners Ferry, has met with residents of the Creston area to collect information on the polygamists.
“We don’t want to play catch up down the road,” Kramer said. “We are trying to educate ourselves and be aware of what potential crimes might be committed.”
The problem for Idaho officials is that polygamists keep a low profile and finding evidence of wrongdoing usually requires an inside informer.