OPINION — Canada, like Texas, gets it. That’s why Winston Blackmore and James Oler are now facing prison sentences for polygamy convictions.
The two former bishops in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful, British Columbia, Canada, received their verdicts Monday following years of dogged investigation by Canadian prosecutors.
Canada’s prosecutors were assisted by authorities in Texas who were tenacious in pursuing an investigation into self-proclaimed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs – Warren Jeffs who has also been convicted and is now serving a life-plus sentence in a Texas prison for child sexual assault as a result.
Over the years Utah has been virtually silent when it comes to prosecuting polygamy and its associated crimes, a policy instituted by former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff that was perpetrated by his successor, John Swallow, and apparently his successor, Sean Reyes.
Winston Blackmore and Oler, former bishops of the FLDS branch in western Canada, were charged after records seized in the 2008 raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion compound in Texas were shared with Canadian investigators.
According to court documents, Winston Blackmore has at least 24 wives and more than 145 children. Fourteen of those wives were 17 or younger when Blackmore married them. Oler has five wives and 32 children. They were each charged and convicted on one count of polygamy. They could be sentenced to as many as five years in prison.
Canadian officials will render a verdict on a separate FLDS-related case when court convenes on Aug. 11 to sentence a former husband and wife – Brandon and Gail Blackmore – convicted of transporting their 13-year-old daughter across the border to the United States so she could be married to Warren Jeffs.
The convictions of Winston Blackmore and Oler were long in the making.
Canadian investigators began probing the FLDS sect back in the 1990s when allegations surfaced about the Mormon fundamentalist group that settled in the tiny community of Bountiful. However, the documents shared by Texas authorities shed light on the so-called spiritual marriages of both men.
Winston Blackmore’s attorney, Blair Suffredine, said he will appeal the decision, arguing that Canada’s polygamy laws infringe on his client’s constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion.
According to a story in The Vancouver Sun, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sheri Ann Donegan refused to hear Suffredine’s constitutional argument during trial because he failed to properly notify the judge, the other lawyers and the federal Justice Department of a challenge under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Winston Blackmore, meanwhile, is not an unfamiliar face in Utah polygamy circles.
A year ago, he was part of a group of Canadian polygamists who traveled to the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, for a Fourth of July celebration that had a conciliatory theme, welcoming those who had been ousted from the community, religion and culture for a variety of reasons.
Winston Blackmore was excommunicated from the church in 2002 after a power struggle with Warren Jeffs after the latter named himself as prophet upon his father Rulon Jeffs’ death. Rulon Jeffs had led the church from 1986 until 2002.
The celebration and reunification was looked upon by longtime FLDS observers as an opportunity to solidify the community and, perhaps, establish new leadership, which had been rocked after the imprisonment of Warren Jeffs and the disappearance of his brother, Lyle Jeffs.
Lyle Jeffs had recently fled after being placed on house arrest while he awaited trial on federal charges. After a year on the run, he was captured while living in a pickup truck in a remote part of South Dakota. He has been transported back to Utah where he awaits trial on federal charges for food stamp fraud.
What makes the efforts for reconciliation more interesting is the interaction between the various polygamous groups in Utah and elsewhere that brings the seedy context of the culture into view. Those who have escaped the polygamous lifestyle have revealed how the various factions of Mormon fundamentalism have, despite their separate leadership, had close ties, whether through business alliances or trading young girls from one community to another to place them in spiritual marriages.
Take the particular case of Brandon and Gail Blackmore. The two brought their daughter to the United States and to Utah-Arizona’s Short Creek community for the explicit reason of placing her into marriage with Warren Jeffs. And yet, though there is enough evidence to convict Brandon and Gail Blackmore in a Canadian court, no charges have been brought against them in Utah.
The question begs: How many other young girls have been placed in sexual slavery in the name of “religion,” and why does Utah repeatedly turn a blind eye on this criminal activity?
Top law enforcement officials in Utah have turned a blind eye to all of this, and it is disappointing.
Shurtleff and Swallow both were adamant that they would not prosecute polygamy offenses. Reyes said he would change that policy.
Could it be that Utah lawmakers have gotten too cozy with the polygamous community?
A 2016 investigative piece in the Salt Lake Tribune revealed that Washakie Renewable Energy, a company tied to a northern Utah polygamous group, has donated approximately $190,000 to state and federal politicians, including $50,000 given to the Reyes campaign.
Once the revelations were made, some pleaded ignorance, with the Reyes campaign stating they would put the money into escrow until receiving further direction from federal investigators.
Of course, there was no explanation why Reyes was invited to speak at a Washakie Christmas party.
The bottom line is this: A politician who hopes to maintain any hope of credibility must avoid even the appearance of corruption or collusion. To carelessly take money, accept speaking invitations or take meetings with questionable groups brings them under suspicion.
Especially when they continue to ignore violations of the law by those groups or individuals who make financial or partnership overtures.
It’s called corruption, something that used to be considered at the very least a violation of the public trust, and at worst, a violation of the law.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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