Ex-members of the polygamist community of Bountiful renewed calls Tuesday for B.C. to prosecute polygamists on this side of the border after a U.S. jury found prophet Warren Jeffs guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old by assigning her to marry her cousin.
Debbie Palmer, who grew up in Bountiful, near Creston, and was assigned to marry 57-year-old Ray Blackmore when she was 15, said she was happy to hear of the guilty verdict Tuesday.
She said she hoped it will push B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal to “look harder at the prosecution of the some of the elders in Bountiful.”
“It’s about time one of these polygamist cult leaders that has caused as much damage and [committed] horrific crimes against women, children and men is held accountable,” Palmer said.
“It’ll help make more people in the community realize that if they take that step to talk about the abuse in the community the law will respond,” she said. “Up until now it has been a hopeless job.”
Jeffs, 51, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for counselling Elissa Wall to marry her first cousin Allen Steed against her will. Jeffs performed the wedding ceremony and told them to “go forth and multiply.”
Most North American polygamists follow Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s revelation that only men with three or more wives can reach the highest realm of heaven. They believe in assigned marriages, in which the prophet or church elders determine which man a woman will marry.
Palmer was assigned to two other men after marrying Ray Blackmore, and bore seven children before she managed to escape the community 24 years ago with all of her children.
Others haven’t been as lucky, she said, and there should be laws to prevent sexual abuse of women, girls and young men in the community.
She said while “there will be some freedom gained” from Tuesday’s ruling, it could also lead to more tension in the compound.
Bountiful is home to about 700 fundamentalist Mormons who practise a polygamist lifestyle. The community is divided, with hundreds of members supporting Jeffs and others Bountiful bishop Winston Blackmore.
Merrill Palmer, principal of Bountiful elementary-secondary school, which is controlled by Jeffs, did not return phone calls Tuesday.
The testimony of prosecution witness Jane Blackmore, a midwife who was Winston Blackmore’s first wife, was believed to have helped convince the U.S. jury to convict Jeffs.
Jane Blackmore said Tuesday she feels positive about the verdict, but said there is still a lot of work to be done if any changes are to be made. She couldn’t predict what it would mean for Bountiful at this stage.
“I feel like this is just the beginning and I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference overnight,” she said. “It’s going to be an ongoing process. How it plays out . . . it will take a lot of time.”
Oppal said Jeffs’s conviction for being an accomplice to rape is “very unusual” but sends a clear message that they believe he committed a crime.
Oppal said his office may look at similar charges in Bountiful, but is still investigating whether they can be laid.
Polygamy in Canada is illegal — it was banned in Canada’s first Criminal Code in 1892 — but prosecutions are rare.
Oppal earlier this month appointed lawyer Leonard Doust to take a “more aggressive approach” in reviewing allegations of misconduct in the Bountiful community.
Doust was appointed to review a decision by special prosecutor Richard Peck, who recommended no charges be laid against Bountiful members because there was not a substantial likelihood of conviction. Doust’s report is expected shortly.
“It’s always been my view that polygamy can be harmful to women and children, and in this case the jury obviously believed the prosecution witnesses and came to the proper conclusion,” Oppal said.
Audrey Vance, co-chairwoman of Altering Destiny Through Education in Creston, said she was delighted with the verdict. She maintains that while Jeffs was found guilty of being an accomplice, some Bountiful elders have gone beyond assigning marriages and have married young girls themselves.
Winston Blackmore has publicly admitted that several of his more than 20 wives were only 16 and at least one was 15 when they married.
Since 1990, his family has grown to include more than 105 children.
“I want something done with Bountiful,” Vance said. “I don’t think this can continue. These are young girls who are told they’ll go to hell if they don’t get married and start having children.”
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