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Where the Polygamists Have White-Picket Fences

They have suburban Utah homes. Manicured lawns. Quiet lives. But they also have contested beliefs, which many are emerging to defend.

October 15, 2006|Kirsten Scharnberg and Manya A. Brachear | Chicago Tribune

EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Utah — The neighborhood looks like any other in the upper-middle-class suburbs: sprawling homes with porch swings and manicured lawns strewn with kids' bicycles.

But beneath the all-American veneer, much is different in this upscale subdivision 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

"Pretty much everyone who lives here is polygamous," said Mary, who gave a recent tour of the area and who is the second wife of a Utah man. She, like other polygamists interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of prosecution. "There may be one or two houses that aren't, but virtually everyone else here is one of ours."

In the weeks since the arrest of Warren Jeffs, the polygamous sect leader who made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list for allegations that he facilitated the rape and marriage of underage girls, there have been constant questions about the pervasiveness and peril of polygamy in Utah.

Mainstream Mormons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 12 million members worldwide, have asserted that all polygamous groups -- including Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- are aberrations in a state where the influential Mormon church banned polygamy more than a century ago.

But Utah's attorney general, pro-polygamy activists and other experts estimate there are 40,000 people living in polygamous families or communities like this one across the western U.S., with a large portion in suburban Utah.

Although it is rare that allegations of abuse are as systemic or egregious as those reported in the community led by Jeffs, virtually every other polygamous sect practicing in Utah today has been linked to alleged financial, sexual or other improprieties. Federal grand juries in Arizona and state investigators in Nevada reportedly are probing polygamist practices.

In the wake of Jeffs' arrest, Utah polygamists have come forward to defend their faith, values and lifestyle.

They say plural marriage fulfills the mission of all Mormons to be fruitful and multiply and to ascend to the highest reaches of heaven. They say it breaks their hearts that the mainstream church in 1890 abandoned polygamy -- what one expert called "the process of polishing the soul" -- to appease the federal government and ensure Utah would earn statehood. They point to communities like Eagle Mountain and Rocky Ridge, where polygamous families appear to be happy and prosperous, often with multiple wives of one husband living in palatial homes with adjoining yards.

"We're really sickeningly boring," said Jane, who shares a husband with Mary. "There is no high drama."

During the 2004 campaign for Utah attorney general, candidates debated how best to handle polygamy, the state's "dirty little secret." The winner, Mark Shurtleff, implemented a policy to leave polygamists alone unless they were committing other crimes simultaneously. Although having more than one spouse is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison in Utah, authorities long ago stopped actively going after polygamists.

"We don't have the resources, nor do I think that we should use our resources, to convict every polygamist in Utah, put them in jail and put 20,000 kids into foster care," Shurtleff told a Canadian reporter recently. "What we're focusing on are crimes against women and children, and tax fraud and other crimes involving misuse of public money."

Long before Jeffs' arrest, such crimes have been reported. For example:

* The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days was the subject of much criticism when a woman fled the community and went to authorities alleging she had been coerced into marrying her stepfather after years of being told she would burn in hell otherwise, according to a book detailing the case. Utah's attorney general chose not to prosecute the man, a preacher who has claimed to be the reincarnated Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, because the woman was 20 years old and deemed a consenting adult.

* The Apostolic United Brethren, or AUB, a polygamous community in Utah with 7,500 members, a suburban complex with athletic fields, an outdoor dance pavilion and a private school, was found to have bilked one member out of more than $1.5 million. A judge ruled the sect and its leaders had to return it.

* In the Davis County Cooperative Society, a polygamous community north of Salt Lake City, the leading family, the Kingstons, has been said by state prosecutors to have more than $150 million in assets. Yet according to court testimony in a recent child abuse case, at least some of the wives and children of one of the community's patriarchs were living in squalor and dependent on welfare. Another of the family's leaders was convicted in 1999 of felony incest for taking his 16-year-old niece as his 15th wife.

But even the most vocal critics are careful not to allege that every polygamist is guilty of such abuses.

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