Bountiful sect leaders charged five years after failed prosecutions

Cranbrook, B.C. - Two leaders of an isolated religious commune in British Columbia have been charged for the second time with practising polygamy, more than two decades after allegations of multiple marriage, sexual abuse and cross-border child trafficking first attracted the attention of the outside world.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler, who lead separate factions in a community known as Bountiful, were each charged Wednesday with one count of polygamy. Blackmore is accused of having 24 marriages, while Oler is accused of four.

Oler is also charged along with two others — Brandon Blackmore and Emily Crossfield — with unlawfully removing a child from Canada for sexual purposes.

The charges are the latest step in a series of investigations and failed attempts at prosecutions dating back to the early 1990s involving Bountiful, which follows a fundamentalist form of Mormonism.

Blackmore and Oler were each charged with polygamy in 2009, but the case was thrown out over how the province chose its special prosecutor.

Until now, the decisions over whether to bring Blackmore, Oler or any other residents of Bountiful to trial were hampered by uncertainty over whether the Criminal Code section banning polygamy violated religious rights outlined in the charter.

But the B.C. Supreme Court answered that question following an exhaustive reference case, ruling in 2011 that the law was in fact constitutional and that the harms of polygamy outweighed any claims to religious freedom.

A news release issued by the province's criminal justice branch said the charges were sworn Wednesday morning. A first appearance is scheduled in Creston provincial court on Oct. 9.

The indictment lists 24 women Blackmore is alleged to have married between 1990 and 2014.

Blackmore has publicly admitted to having multiple wives. He told a tax court in 2012 that he had 22 wives and 67 children.

Oler's four marriages are alleged to have occurred between 1993 and 2009, according to the indictment.

About 1,000 people are believed to live in Bountiful, which is located in the southeastern corner of the province not far from the U.S.-Canada border. Members of the community still hold polygamy as a tenet of the faith, unlike the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

The community is linked to American polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS.

The community split in the early 2000s, with Oler's group remaining loyal to Jeffs and Blackmore leading his own faction.

A separate indictment alleges Oler removed a girl who was under 16 from Canada in June 2004 with the intention of "facilitating" the offences of sexual interference and invitation to sexual touching.

Brandon Blackmore and Crossfield each face the same charge in connection with another girl, who the indictment alleges was removed from Canada in February 2004.

The constitutional reference case heard allegations of cross-border marriages involving more than two dozen teenage girls from Bountiful, including at least two 12 year olds and a 13 year old, who were sent to the United States to marry older men, including Jeffs. The court also heard several American girls were married to Canadian men.

The allegations came from FLDS records that were uncovered in 2008, when authorities in Texas raided the church's Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado.

Wednesday's news release announcing the charges notes prosecutors received a "large volume" of documents from U.S. authorities in Arizona, Texas and Utah.

None of the allegations outlined in either the indictment or in documents presented at the constitutional reference case have been proven in court.

Wally Oppal, who was attorney general when the previous special prosecutor was appointed in 2008, welcomed the news.

"I'm encouraged, because I've always felt there was enough evidence there to lay charges," Oppal said in an interview.

Oppal said he believes the constitutionality of the polygamy law is no longer at issue.

"You have to weigh the rights, and I can't believe that equality of women — and that's what we're talking about here, exploitation of women — takes a secondary position to freedom of religion," he said.

"My own view is that I think that is settled."

The constitutional reference case heard that polygamy leads to a long list of harms, including physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women, and the expulsion of young men who have no women left to marry.

The ruling from the case, released in November 2011, concluded the law was constitutional, so long as it isn't used to prosecute child brides.

Many observers predicted the case would end up at the Supreme Court of Canada, but the lawyer appointed by the court to oppose the law declined to file an appeal.