A leadership change in the nation’s largest polygamy group has set off shock waves and after-effects in several states. And far away in Canada, it’s created a deep division that critics say is driven by a history of tyranny and brainwashing.
Bountiful, British Columbia is a town divided. Polygamists here are torn apart by a leadership crisis a thousand miles away.
For many years, Bountiful was loyal to the prophet of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, Rulon Jeffs in Colorado City. Winston Blackmore, the Bishop of Bountiful, was his right-hand man in Canada. But as Jeffs became enfeebled by old age, his son Warren rose to power. He ousted Blackmore and replaced him with Jimmy Oler.
When his father died two years ago, Warren Jeffs had a firm grip on power. But many Bountiful residents stayed loyal to Blackmore.
Duane Palmer, Bountiful Resident: “Well we’re not going anywhere. We’re going in a separate direction. We’re sticking to our fundamental beliefs.”
The Bountiful community is split now: two leaders, two schools, two meeting halls.The women are often seen shopping in nearby Creston, which historically has an easygoing attitude.
Joe Snopek, Mayor of Creston, BC: “Creston kind of backs off and says, ‘live and let live.’”
But Creston Mayor Joe Snopek says some young people from the polygamist community are sliding into drugs, drinking and trouble.
Joe Snopek: “Well I think the psychology is, you’ve been taught all along that this is the lifestyle. And all of a sudden there’s a split that breaks apart what you’ve been taught.”
In the last year, Warren Jeffs ousted many followers for what some say are minor infractions. He’s kicked men out and assigned their wives and children to other followers.
Anonymous Former Member: “Very bizarre, very bizarre, and uh, fanatical.”
This man says he left Colorado City and moved to the Canadian border to get away from a climate of fear under Warren Jeffs.
Anonymous Former Member: “Abusing people, taking advantage of people, fleecing them of their money, all in the name of earning your salvation.”
One polygamist who recently left the group told us that Warren Jeffs, with his tyrannical and fanatical behavior has done more to destroy the religion than anyone in history. Outside critics say followers on both sides of the split are trapped in a cult by a history of brainwashing.
Linda Price, Creston, BC: “How do you get out when you’re being raised and you’re unhappy and you have several children, how do you get out of that? And you have no education and ‘out’ means going to people you’ve been taught are evil.”
But one Bountiful wife told Canadian Broadcasting the critics have it wrong.
Zelpha Chatwin, Bountiful, BC: “I love this country. And I love the people here. And I don’t want them thinking I’m oppressed. And I’d like the same rights as they have.”
Warren Jeffs remains the most powerful leader of the movement that’s under increasing stress on both sides of the border. In the last year, Warren Jeffs has started expanding. His group purchased land and started construction in Colorado, Texas, and possibly Mexico.