The Long Search for the Missing Child Brides of a Mormon Polygamist Sect
Inside the investigation into the cross-border pipeline used to transport the underage wives of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
A young girl in the polygamous community of Bountiful, British Columbia. Photo by Jackie Dives
Brandon S Blackmore listened carefully. He had to hear past the hissing sound in the recording, and the panting. One voice on the recording was unmistakable, though—the soft, monotone tenor of Warren Jeffs, the deranged leader of North America's largest polygamist sect.
Just a year earlier, Brandon had been a member of Jeffs's flock, a Mormon splinter group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Jeffs—whose followers believe he is a prophet and the voice of God—even officiated Brandon's 2004 wedding, near the FLDS headquarters in Colorado City, Arizona. As Brandon would later learn, just a few minutes before that ceremony, the FLDS leader had also been married, taking Brandon's 13-year-old half-sister, Millie Blackmore, as one of his plural wives. Jeffs was 48 years old at the time.
Now it was August 2013. Jeffs was in prison, serving a life sentence on multiple counts of child rape, and two investigators from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had asked Brandon to listen to a recording of the FLDS leader having sex. They wanted to know if he heard Millie on the tape. Though her name was never said aloud, Brandon could tell by the voice that the woman Jeffs was having sex with was his half-sister. Yes, he told the investigators. It was Millie.
"He was asking her how it felt and a bunch of weird things," Brandon told VICE in a recent interview. He said the investigators told him the tape was made sometime around 2004 or 2005 at a motel in New Mexico. Brandon declined to elaborate further on what else he heard on the recording, the existence of which has not been previously reported.
The RCMP wanted confirmation of Millie's voice as part of a case they were building against Millie's parents, Brandon J Blackmore and his wife, Emily Gail Crossfield Blackmore, whom Canadian authorities claim took their pre-teen daughter across the border to marry Jeffs in Colorado City in 2004. In 2014—the year after the Mounties asked Brandon to listen to the recording— the couple was charged with one count each of removing a child from Canada for the purposes of sex.
The prosecutions are believed to be the first time parents have been held criminally responsible for the 1,100-mile child-bride pipeline that FLDS members ran for decades between the Canadian polygamist enclave in Bountiful, British Columbia, and the sect's headquarters in the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, collectively known as Short Creek.
According to a 2011 count from Stop Polygamy in Canada, an anti-polygamy nonprofit based in Alberta, Canada, at least 50 Canadian girls between the ages of 12 to 17 were married to FLDS men in the United States between 1990 and 2006, when Jeffs was arrested in the US on sex-crimes charges.
In 2014, at the same time charges were filed against Millie's parents, Canadian authorities also charged two former FLDS bishops from British Columbia, Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, with polygamy. The cases against the four Canadian FLDS members are still pending.
Since his arrest, Jeffs has halted all marriages among the FLDS, and it is not clear if his followers have continued the cross-border transport of child brides. But recent interviews conducted by VICE revealed that Canadian law enforcement have continued to question FLDS defectors in the US and Canada in an attempt to learn more about how the sect's bride pipeline worked and whether there is evidence to charge anyone else with a crime.
As recently as last fall, investigators with the RCMP had traveled to the US to speak with relatives and former associates of Jeffs. And law enforcement in both the US and Canada are monitoring the border for signs of human trafficking or other crimes committed by members of the sect, according to interviews and documents obtained by VICE.
In an interview, RCMP sergeant Terry Jacklin, a Mountie in southeastern British Columbia who has been on the trail of the Canadian FLDS polygamists since 2011, confirmed that his agency continues to investigate the sect's marriages, and that more criminal charges may be filed against FLDS members in Canada. Although he would not provide details about the investigation, Jacklin told VICE that the RCMP is working with law enforcement in the US, and that he and his partner may travel to Utah again "within the next couple of months."
The Mounties are also trying to find Millie and two other Canadian women, Alyshia Rae Blackmore and Nolita Colleen Blackmore, both of whom were married to Jeffs at the age of 12. The three brides, all of whom would now be in their early to mid 20s, are thought to still be loyal to Jeffs. They're presumed to be living on one of the FLDS compounds in the American West, or at secret locations known among members as "Houses of Hiding," where FLDS followers have been hiding out, waiting for God to free Jeffs from his prison cell in Texas.
Though the current charges against the Canadian polygamists weren't filed until 2014, the case actually begins more than a decade earlier, in Short Creek. By that point, Jeffs—who took control of the FLDS church after the death of his father, Rulon Jeffs, in 2002—was already accumulating wives, including one of Millie's sisters, Annie Mae Blackmore.
In 2004, Jeffs sent word to the girl's father, Brandon J Blackmore, that he wanted to marry Millie as well, and asked that the teenager be brought to Colorado City from her home in Bountiful, BC. A journal entry dated March 1, 2004, dictated by Jeffs to one of his wives and later seized by US authorities in Texas, describes what happened next:
"I sat down with Brandon [J] Blackmore and his wife and his daughter, gave a training on the redemption of Zion in brief, in summary, and this girl was called on a mission, and they received it joyfully," the entry reads. "And there Mildred Marlene Blackmore, age 13, was sealed to Warren Steed Jeffs for time and all eternity." The entry also notes that Brandon J Blackmore witnessed the wedding.
It wasn't the only marriage ceremony that took place in Short Creek that day. Brandon S Blackmore, Millie's half-brother, had also been called to make the 16-hour drive from Bountiful, though he traveled separately from his father and half-sister. When he arrived, he met the woman he was assigned to marry, and Jeffs performed their wedding ceremony, shortly after his own marriage to Millie.
The younger Brandon Blackmore claims he didn't know that Millie also got married that same day, or even that she was in Colorado City at the time. But shortly after his wedding, he told VICE, he went years without seeing Millie around Bountiful; members of the community were told she was on a mission for the church, he said. In reality, Millie was traveling with the Jeffs family, including his estimated 81 plural wives, moving among secret FLDS locations across the western US, as authorities began their hunt for the polygamist prophet, who was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list in 2006.
In an interview, Rachel Jeffs, Warren's 32-year-old daughter from his second marriage, confirmed that during the early 2000s, a series of teenage girls—including Millie— arrived in the Jeffs household without any explanation. When she asked, Rachel told VICE, she was told that the girl was her father's new wife. Rachel, who left the FLDS in January 2015, said she was angry, but never confronted her father about marrying girls so young.
"If you do, then you lose your place in the church," she explained. "I wasn't so worried about losing my place in the church. I just would never get to see my family again."
Rachel said she remembers Millie crying a lot, and that things got worse for the young girl after Warren married the two Canadian 12-year-olds, Alyshia Rae Blackmore and Nolita Colleen Blackmore, in December 2005, at the Yearning for Zion ranch, an FLDS compound near Eldorado, Texas. "I saw her struggle emotionally a lot," Rachel said of Millie. "She wasn't really stable."
After Jeffs's arrest, FLDS leaders frequently moved his wives and closest children to keep them away from authorities. Sometimes the family members would be stashed in one of the FLDS communities; other times they would be separated and put up in one of the sect's Houses of Hiding. Often, Rachel said, members of the family didn't even know where they were. She recalled that she and Alyshia were once taken in the middle of the night to a House of Hiding in Idaho—she doesn't know where exactly, since the women weren't allowed to go outside for more than a few minutes at a time.
Then in 2008, local, state, and federal law enforcement in Texas raided the FLDS compound near Eldorado, responding to what turned out to be a bogus tip about a girl being held against her will. Inside, they found pregnant teens and teens with babies, as well as the temple where Jeffs reportedly engaged in orgies with the girls.
Texas rangers also found hundreds of thousands of documents, including ledgers, Warren's journals, family rosters, and family photos, which revealed the names of the sect's underage sexual abuse victims and their perpetrators, as well as dates and other details about the abuse. The raid, and the trove of evidence it uncovered, changed the way law enforcement across North America investigated the FLDS, turning what had been a relatively unknown group of polygamists into a household name.
Brandon S Blackmore says he saw his half-sister Millie again near the end of 2009, when she returned to Bountiful in the wake of the Texas raid. The following summer, Brandon said, as they sat on a rocking bench in the yard of Brandon's home near Bountiful, the conversation turned to his wedding day, and Millie told him she had watched the ceremony from an adjoining room through a double-sided mirror. Then she revealed that she too had gotten married that day, to Jeffs.
Her half-brother was stunned: After the Texas raid, FLDS leaders in Bountiful had told followers that authorities were lying about the evidence they'd uncovered. Casting the incident as yet another example of their religious persecution, they defended Jeffs and insisted that the church had not been marrying off underage girls.
As he listened to Millie's account, Brandon realized all this had been a bald-faced lie.
In an interview with VICE, Brandon said that though he and Millie didn't discuss her marriage or relationship with Jeffs much, it was clear that his half-sister remained loyal to the FLDS leader, who by that time had already been incarcerated for four years.
Millie vanished again later that summer. Two years later, Brandon left the FLDS sect, divorcing his wife who remains loyal to Jeffs, and with whom he shares custody of their four children. In August 2013, he went to the RCMP to offer his help in their investigation into the FLDS. It was then that the authorities played him the audio recording of Millie and Jeffs, which had apparently been uncovered during the US government's investigations of the sect.
"I don't want my dad going to jail if I can help that, but it has got to stop," Brandon said. "This marriage of underage girls has got to stop."
While he said he believes the case against his father and stepmother should move forward, he also expressed some sympathy. At the time of Millie's marriage, he explained, the couple faced tremendous pressure from inside the FLDS. Had they refused to marry their daughter to Jeffs, Brandon added, they would have been excommunicated—a fate that would have meant separation from their families and denial of the faith that they continued to believe in.
In the end, Brandon's father was excommunicated anyway, after FLDS leaders got wind of the RCMP investigation into Millie's marriage. The younger Brandon Blackmore assumes that the church was trying to avoid paying his father's legal fees.
"They're not going to gain anything by prosecuting him," he said of the Canadian investigation into his father. "It's not going to stop the FLDS."
The father and son now live two blocks from each other in a hamlet about 30 minutes east of Bountiful. The elder, Brandon J Blackmore, who once had five wives and has 40 children, now lives alone. When I visited his residence on a recent trip to Bountiful, he would not talk about the charge against him, saying repeatedly, "I don't know anything."
Brandon S Blackmore explained that while he doesn't believe his father condones Jeffs's crimes, he also doesn't talk about it much.
"He would have to confront that he made a big mistake," he said.
To understand these conflicting allegiances, it helps to understand the community of Bountiful, nestled in the Creston Valley, at the southern reaches of the Columbia Mountains just north of the Idaho border in British Columbia. Since the 1940s, the settlement has been an outpost for breakaway Mormon polygamists. Most of its 600 or so inhabitants are descended from just a handful of men, creating a community with so few surnames that it tends to be easier to refer to people by only their first names.
For years, Bountiful aligned itself with the FLDS, existing as a sleepy northern outpost of the sect led by Jeffs's father, Rulon. But in 2002, in an event known locally as the "Split," The Jeffs'excommunicated the top FLDS leader in Bountiful, Winston Blackmore. The reasons behind the excommunication are not known, but it was one of hundreds of culls Warren Jeffs initiated to neutralize rivals within the sect and scare members into remaining obedient.
The excommunication divided the local polygamist community in Bountiful, which numbered as many as 1,000 at the time of the Split. On one side, there are the Warrenites, who remained loyal to Jeffs; on the other are the Winstonites, who broke away from the main FLDS sect to follow Winston Blackmore, who built his own meetinghouse and chapel in Bountiful. Both Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, the leader of the Warrenites in Bountiful, are named in the 2014 polygamy indictment. (Oler was also charged with removing a child from Canada for the purposes of sex.)
The groups are friendly with each other. Virtually everyone in Bountiful has relatives in both camps, and members of both groups—as well as polygamous residents who remain neutral in the schism—are beneficiaries of the Utah-based land trust that holds Bountiful's 300 acres and the 55 homes on it. Winstonites, who dress in secular, if modest clothing, and those unaffiliated with either group serve on civic boards together, and many of their children go to the same schools. The Warrenites, in their mono-colored, Little House on the Prairie outfits, don't mix much, but are nevertheless a visible, and mostly neighborly, presence in the town.
It's a marked contrast to the atmosphere in Short Creek, where those deemed disloyal to Jeffs are banished and bullied, and divisions between FLDS followers and apostates have pushed the community to the brink of civil war. From the Texas prison where he is currently serving a life sentence, Jeffs continues to exert control over his flock, demanding the near-total isolation of the sect, and imposing a series of bizarre restrictions, including banning dietary staples, like dairy and oatmeal, forbidding sex between spouses, and demanding that followers only turn on bathroom faucets with their right hands.
The Canadian polygamists have also had far fewer legal problems than their American counterparts. Since the 2008 raid on the FLDS compound in Texas, the US branch of the FLDS has faced intense government scrutiny, including charges of money laundering and food stamp fraud, and fines for child labor violations; earlier this year, a jury in Arizona found that the towns of Hildale and Colorado City had violated the civil rights of nonbelievers living there.
But apart from the 2014 charges, the FLDS followers in Bountiful have largely avoided prosecution, despite allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse against many of the sect's leaders there.
In Bountiful, interviews with former Warrenites indicate that the branch's numbers have declined since Jeffs's conviction in 2011. Former Jeffs followers in the community, like Twyla Quinton, are dismayed at the direction the FLDS has taken. Once a true believer, Quinton was married at age 16 in a mass wedding ceremony officiated by Jeffs's father, Rulon.
"We were sort of given a choice," Quinton told VICE. "It was definitely encouraged to get married. All of my friends were getting married. I had finished all the school available to me. It was the next step in life. So I approached Winston, I did, and I told him I wanted to get married.
"I was happy to be getting married," she said, adding, "I know that's not the same for all the girls."
Quinton, who is now unaffiliated with either of the sects in Bountiful, credits her husband Ron—who is also married to her younger sister—with getting their family out of the church. The FLDS members in Bountiful are "awesome people," Quinton said, but she wishes the Warrenites would "behave like normal Canadians" and stop allowing Jeffs to dictate their lives.
People in Bountiful see the RCMP's child-bride investigation as part of the Canadian government's broader pursuit of Winston Blackmore, who at last count had 27 wives and 145 children, the youngest of whom was born this past April, according to Blackmore and several of his relatives. In 2014, six months before his indictment in Canada, Winston testified in a deposition for a civil case in Utah that at least a few of his wives were 15 or 16 when he married them, though those weddings apparently occurred before Canada set 16 as a minimum age for marriage in 2008.
"He is the king stud of Canada," said Nancy Mereska, founder of Stop Polygamy in Canada, which has been openly critical of the Canadian government's failure to crack down on the polygamists in Bountiful. "They were putting people in prison [in Texas], and we were just wanting things to go ahead in Canada."
Canada's efforts to nail Winston date back several decades, and the FLDS leader said in an affidavit submitted to a British Columbia court that he first became aware that the RCMP was investigating him for polygamy in 1990. That first investigation did not result in charges. But according to Zelpha Chatwin, who says she is Winston's eighth wife, an RCMP investigator visited Bountiful as far back as 2005, asking general questions about polygamy and the community there.
Chatwin told VICE that about a year after that first visit, another group of Mounties came to Bountiful and began questioning women in the community. According to her and other women VICE spoke to in Bountiful, the law enforcement officials wanted DNA samples from them and their children, and asked women a range of personal questions, including the names of their husbands, their children, and when their marriages were consummated.
But it wasn't until 2009 that Canadian authorities finally charged Winston and Jim Oler with polygamy. That case was stayed over questions about the British Columbia attorney general's selection of a special prosecutor. Charges were filed again in 2014, at the same time that Brandon J Blackmore and Emily Gail Crossfield Blackmore were charged in the case related to their daughter, Millie. The couple's trial is scheduled to begin November 14 in Cranbrook, British Columbia, according to a spokesman for the province's Ministry of Justice. Trial dates have not been set for either Winston or Oler.
In the meantime, the Canadian government has pursued Winston in other ways. In 2013, a federal judge there ruled that the polygamist leader had underreported income from his logging and trucking businesses by about $1.8 million (Canadian) over a six-year span, and ordered Winston to undergo a reassessment and pay $150,000 in penalties. A Canadian appeals court affirmed the decision in 2014.
Neither Winston nor his attorney responded to VICE's requests for an interview. However, at the Sunstone Salt Lake Symposium, a gathering of followers from both mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism held in Utah this July, Winston complained about the government's continued efforts to prosecute him.
"Those suckers are after me by day and by night," Winston told the audience. "I've got to go another round with them."
In the years after his meeting with the RCMP—and after hearing the tape of his half-sister having sex with Jeffs—Brandon S Blackmore tried to look for Millie himself, traveling to places where the FLDS have enclaves or compounds. In Short Creek, as well as in Pringle, South Dakota, and Mancos, Colorado, he would sit outside the sect's properties, hoping to catch a glimpse of his missing sibling.
"More than anything, I wanted to see how she was," he said, "if she's still alive."
The Mounties have taken a more systematic approach to finding Millie and the other two Canadian brides. In the fall of 2015, Jacklin and Constable Shelley Livingstone, the RCMP investigators, visited Rachel Jeffs in Montana. They also visited Salt Lake City, according to people with knowledge of the investigation. In an interview room at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, the Mounties met with another one of Warren's daughters who lived with the Canadian brides and asked her to identify photographs of the girls and to help them interpret some of her father's journals. Roy Allred, one of Jeffs's former drivers and family caretakers, has also said that RCMP investigators requested to meet him, near his home in Elko, Nevada, but did not return messages from VICE to confirm that the meeting had occurred.
Canadian authorities are also monitoring the border to see which members of the sect are traveling between Bountiful and FLDS enclaves in Idaho and other Western states. Willie Jessop, a former Jeffs bodyguard and FLDS spokesman who has since become a witness in multiple legal proceedings against the sect, acknowledged in an interview with VICE that the RCMP occasionally calls him to ask about people crossing the US-Canadian border. Jessop said they have also asked if specific crossers are still loyal to Jeffs and, if so, what role those individuals have in the church.
Neither Jacklin nor Livingstone would confirm whom they have spoken with in Utah. In his recent interview with VICE, Jacklin did say that the RCMP is working with US authorities on its investigations, though he declined to specify which agencies are collaborating. "We are still building, we are still gathering evidence," he said, "and we are still in the process of providing more information to our prosecutor in respect to additional charges against additional people."
According to Jacklin, the RCMP first obtained the Texas evidence in 2011 and began its investigation into the child brides that year. Asked why the process has taken so long, Jacklin cited the tremendous amount of evidence investigators have had to sort through; the evidence acquired from the Texas raid alone amounts to six terabytes of data.
Jacklin also acknowledged another, more complex obstacle—one that additional manpower or overtime hours won't be able to solve. "Some of these girls don't see themselves as victims," he said. Jacklin didn't say how many former child brides the RCMP has approached, or whether the investigation includes additional women besides Millie, Alyshia, and Nolita.
In Bountiful, the RCMP's investigation into underage marriages has raised uncomfortable questions for people like Twyla Quinton, who continues to live in the community despite no longer aligning herself with either Jeffs or Winston Blackmore.
Determined to share her frustration with what's happened to the FLDS, Quinton and her 16-year-old daughter, Bianca, hiked into the mountainside above Bountiful last summer, where someone has sprayed "KEEP SWEET" on a boulder along the trail. It's a shortened version of a popular message in Bountiful, "Keep Sweet No Matter What," which FLDS leaders attempt to ingrain in their followers. The subtext, Quinton said, is that people—particularly women and children—should do what they're told and shut up about it.
Armed with spray paint cans, Quinton and Bianca covered the slogan in white paint. Then, in red, they wrote their own message: "BE AWESOME." It was a striking act of defiance in a community where such acts are exceedingly rare. But while Quinton told VICE that she doesn't support teenage marriages—although hers has been a good one—she also questioned the Canadian government's determination to punish someone for the practice.
"A little girl getting married is not OK, but whose fault is that?" she told VICE. "If you're going to save a child bride, do it when she's still a child."
December 21, 2016: A photo was removed due to privacy concerns.