With the grim specter of the Aryan Nations so recently erased from North Idaho, there is new fear of an equally rabid ‘religion’ gaining a foothold in Boundary County following a rift in the leadership of the Fundamental Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, which is reportedly bringing massive instability to a sect that has remained secretively in the background for decades.
The FLDS has existed in a small, closed enclave called Bountiful near Creston since the 1940s, when four families moved there from Alberta. Since then, the local group has grown to over 1,000 people, formerly led by “Bishop” Winston Blackmore, who openly espouses the practice of polygamy as the path to Heaven and who led the only openly polygamous community in the U.S. or Canada.
But the main body of the FLDS Church was located in the arid south, where an estimated 10,000 adherents now dwell in several communities. In 1998, former “prophet” Rulon Jeffs died, and his son, Warren Jeffs, became the group’s spiritual leader, and those who’ve studied the group say his actions since are truly frightening.
“Warren Jeffs is a tyrant and a coward,” said Sam Brower, an investigator who has been working to crack through the wall of secrecy surrounding the FLDS. “After Rulon went senile and died in 1998 of a major stroke, Warren moved himself into power and created a walled compound in Short Creek. He took control of a trust that had been established to serve the followers of the church, and amended its bylaws so it sounds like the ranting of a madman and gives him, the ‘prophet,’ the final say in everything. Since then, he’s systematically removed everyone who might threaten his power, and given their wives and children to men he considers faithful.”
According to Brower, Jeffs hasn’t been seen publicly for quite some time, and he said it’s thought he may be in Bountiful, where James Oler has taken over as “Bishop” of the sect that still follows Jeffs. And he’s heard, he said, that those under Oler are looking to expand into Boundary County.
“There are reports that Jeffs may be hiding in Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint or at Bountiful,” he said. “There are rumors of people moving from Bountiful to the Idaho side, and these are likely Oler’s people.”
Among those excommunicated was Blackmore, who retained a local following of his own and is now sounding the alarm that the road Warren Jeffs is taking could end in another Waco, where 74 followers of self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh burned to death in 1993 after a botched raid on the sect’s compound, or in another Jonestown, Guyana, where over 914 followers of Jim Jones committed mass suicide.
He didn’t, however, respond to a request for an interview.
“He’s pretty outspoken,” Brower said, “but he’s still very leery of the media.”
Now that he’s been excommunicated, Blackmore is seen as a moderate, and his help is being used in an effort to rein in or oust Jeffs from church leadership.
“It doesn’t seem Blackmore governs by fear,” one man said. “Warren Jeffs does.”
In the wake of his excommunication, Blackmore’s followers have become more outspoken, having taken out an ad in the Creston Valley Advance recently to denounce reports that women of the community are oppressed or abused, and some have even talked to reporters.
While the fear of possible mass suicide or an armed standoff is troubling, what bothers local leaders are the surfacing stories of life inside the FLDS from former members, many of them mere children, who have been kicked out of the communities they were raised in and face life on the outside with few, if any, social skills, and no way to support themselves.
Linda Calahan, Creston, has been documenting the Bountiful Compound, which is actually nearer Lister than it is Creston, since she came into contact in the 1970s with a man there who had five wives and 47 children, and knew of a 13-year-old girl who gave birth.
“I’m just a concerned citizen who’s worried about these children,” she said.
She said not only are these groups breaking Canadian law, which forbids polygamy, by their very religious dogma they’re imposing on the communities in which they live through tax fraud and welfare abuse.
“Their belief is that you have to have three wives to enter heaven,” she said. “At age 15 or even younger, girls are given to the elders as “celestial brides,” which is really little more than making them concubines. These legally single mothers draw welfare, as the church believes there’s nothing wrong with draining what they perceive as the illegitimate government as they prepare for heaven. The children belong to the priesthood, not to their parents, and they’re indoctrinated from birth in the teachings of the church. The children are all privately schooled, and have little contact with the outside world. Very few ever graduate; the girls become ‘celestial brides’ and the young boys are put to work for next to nothing or they’re excommunicated.”
“In their belief, what they get in welfare, Medicaid or other government programs is nothing more than God providing for them as they build His kingdom,” Brower said.
A lawsuit was recently filed in Utah on behalf of these excommunicated boys, whose fall into society is often tragic.
Attorney Roger Hoole represents a large group of “Lost Boys” from the Short Creek area on the Arizona/Utah border, and what he says he’s seen almost defies belief.
“These young men, who worked since childhood in the belief that they were contributing to a trust that would take care of them, are thrown out as excess male baggage for the slightest, if any, reason,” he said. “This allows the older men to continue entering into more polygamous marriages without the competition. They’re left with absolutely nothing except the notion that’s planted in their head by church leadership that they’re eternally damned to hell. They love their families, but they’re forbidden to talk to them, they’re made outcasts from all they’ve ever known. Some get into drugs or alcohol, others commit suicide.”
The fate that befalls the young women of the FLDS may be even worse. According to Hoole and others, the girls are often “given” to older men for their faithfulness, and they are often moved between the various church communities, including Bountiful,
His goal, he said, is to see that the church’s trust, the United Effort Plan Trust, which was established decades ago to benefit the families of the FLDS, is returned to the purpose for which it was meant and not the personal treasure chest of Warren Jeffs.
“These kids grow up believing that through their contributions of time and labor, they’ll be able to share the largesse,” he said. “Since Warren Jeffs took over, though, we believe the fund does little but line the pockets of Warren Jeffs. My purpose is to recapture the assets of the trust and reunite families.”
In addition to working to see that the fund be returned to its intended use, Hoole hopes to open the eyes of members to the fact that they have choices.
“I have no illusion that many of them will never decide to enter mainstream America,” he said, “but I think many will. Hopefully in the process, they will see clearer choices and make informed decisions. You can’t force change, all you can do is make change possible. It for them to make the decision.”
Bonners Ferry Mayor Darrell Kerby thought he would be reading an adventure story when he was given a copy of the John Krakauer book, “Under the Banner of Heaven.” He’d read his previous book, “Into Thin Air,” which chronicled the reporters ordeal as the only survivor of a trip up Mt. Everest, and expected “Under the Banner of Heaven” to be along the same lines.
When he began reading the expose of the FLDS, however, he immediately became concerned, and he began learning all he could about the cult.
“Since being made aware of the possibility of Boundary County becoming a major locale for polygamy, I have interviewed and talked to as many people as I’ve been able to reach to see what I can learn about this,” Kerby said. “I believe it’s important to determine as many facts as possible as to what is actually occurring. Are they practicing polygamy? If so, why aren’t we prosecuting? What of the reports of underage girls being trafficked between these communities? If that’s happening, what can we do to stop it? Are FLDS members moving north? If so, how many? These are just some of the questions we have to answer. It’s a great concern.”
He said that as he began talking to people in the community, he was told that there are polygamists already living in Boundary County, and a check of the assessor roll shows that Winston Blackmore owns two parcels near Porthill. On one is a large cabin, and it’s suspected that this is but one home where his purported several wives live.
During the sheriffs campaign, Sheriff Greg Sprungl said in a forum that he’s aware of the allegations and was actively investigating the claims. It wasn’t long after, area residents say, that the house emptied.
Kerby said he’s been in close contact with Creston Mayor Joe Snopek, who told him that Creston police are noting an increase in the number of men and boys, outcasts from Bountiful, getting into trouble. Though the “Lost Boys” he represents are all from Utah and Arizona, Roger Hoole said that many of his clients told him of working for the church trust in Boundary County and in south British Columbia.
Another thing that worries Kerby, he said, is the possibility of the area again being tainted by a fundamentalist group.
“I don’t care what religion you’re talking about, fundamentalism is always dangerous,” he said, “be it fundamental Muslim, which espouses terrorism, or fundamental Christianity, which spawned the Aryan Nations. It is my understanding that the teachings of the FLDS are as racist and threatening as anything you’d hear from a member of the Aryan Nations, and that’s the last thing we want any group teaching.”
According to Hoole, the law enforcement community is loathe to take a more aggressive stance in prosecuting the laws, either of Canada or the United States, not only because of the cry of “religious prosecution,” but because prior attempts have gone horribly awry.
“In 1953, police in Utah and Arizona raided Short Creek and it was a disaster,” he said. “They broke families apart and put kids in foster homes. The FLDS raised the cry of religious persecution and the public took notice and stood up for the church. They’ve been gun shy ever since.”
But with the rift in church leadership, he said scrutiny of the FLDS has increased.
“Now it’s getting so bad, with the reorganization of families, kicking out the young men and marrying off the young women into polygamous marriages, that law enforcement is looking very hard,” he said, “but they can’t just jump in and kick down doors.”
“We hope all this is not happening,” Kerby said, “but the logic and gist of what I’ve learned tells me something is horribly wrong. If these allegations are true, not only are laws, Constitutional laws, being broken, there are many innocent victims who are being horribly abused, and we are obligated, by law, to intercede.”