Utah polygamist sect accused of indoctrination, rape and child marriage
A view of Salt Lake City. Members of the Kingston Group operate several businesses and schools in the suburbs of Utah’s capital. Photograph: Douglas Pulsipher/Alamy
Kingston Group hit with lawsuit from former members that alleges unpaid labor, sexual abuse and human trafficking
MacKenzie RyanMon 19 Sep 2022 07.00 BST Last modified on Mon 19 Sep 2022 07.51 BST
Ten former members of a Utah-based polygamist sect known as the Kingston Group are pursuing punitive damages against the organization after they say it subjected them to years of unpaid labor, sexual violence and human trafficking.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, the sect’s ex-members allege: “It is largely through … illegal marriage practices that the [Kingston Group] is able to unlawfully make girls and their children religious martyrs and traffic them for sexual and labor purposes.”
The lawsuit contains explicit details of how Kingston Group leaders – who also own and operate several businesses and schools in the suburbs of Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City – allegedly arrange incestuous and sometimes underage marriages between teenage girls and adult men with exalted status to produce hundreds of children.
The suit alleges episodes of rape aimed at forcing pregnancy, group members covering up years of sexual abuse and indoctrinating children in elementary school about plural marriage.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Roger Hoole, declined to elaborate beyond his clients’ lawsuit or respond to requests for interviews with former group members.
In a response to the allegations against it, the Kingston Group – also known officially as the Davis County Cooperative Society and internally as “the Order” – said its current policy prohibits plural marriage for members under 18. They also claimed to believe that marriage is a personal choice that should not be coerced.
“Members are encouraged to prayerfully seek guidance from their parents or through personal inspiration, but ultimately, the decision must be their own,” the group said in its response to the lawsuit.
The group added: “Once an individual has made a decision on who to marry, members are encouraged to seek the blessing of their parents, family and/or church leaders, but to say that one individual chooses or heavily influences who will marry who is entirely inaccurate.”
Nine of the plaintiffs claim the Kingston Group made them begin working during their elementary or preschool days through their late teenage years. None of them received a paycheck, they allege.
In her complaint, Amanda Rae Grant claims she was assigned to work in her early teens at Advance Copy, where wedding announcements and invitations were printed, because “wedding pictures of little girls marrying men in incestuous or plural marriages could not be printed at Walmart”.
Another plaintiff, Jeremy Roberts, said he started working four hours a day – year-round – at a farm run by the Order when he was seven or eight. He allegedly was told that his hourly pay was $3.23.
By the time he was 12, Roberts said, he was working 12-hour shifts at a mine the Order ran.
The Kingston Group denied allegations that children worked for their businesses. The group also said that its business owners are strongly encouraged to follow all applicable laws when hiring, employing and compensating their employees.
‘Bleeding the Beast’
The allegations facing the Kingston Group come after the state of Utah effectively decriminalized polygamy between consenting adults in 2020, making plural marriage an infraction similar in gravity to a speeding ticket. However, if a spouse is coerced or underage in a plural marriage in Utah, it becomes a felony.
It marked the latest chapter in Utah’s long, complicated history with polygamy. To help Utah achieve statehood, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – issued a manifesto ending polygamy as a practice in 1890.
However, more than 130 years later, polygamist sects exist in close-knit settlements throughout the state, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), run by its imprisoned leader and convicted rapist Warren Jeffs.
Pro-polygamy groups estimate there are about 30,000 to 40,000 people in Utah who live in polygamist communities. The Kingston Group declined to confirm its membership numbers.
While the Kingston Group, founded in 1935, is not affilated with the FLDS, members practice a fundamentalist version of Mormonism that involves polygamy. Members are primarily born into the organization whose leader Paul Elden Kingston is known as “the Man in the Watch Tower”.
The lawsuit against the group is not the first time it has faced media scrutiny or legal peril. In August, the Utah state charter school board mandated that the Kingston Group-run charter school, Vanguard Academy, replace all nine members of its governing board after various and repeated violations.
Officials alleged that school leaders hired Kingston-connected businesses and paid them with taxpayer money, the Salt Lake City television news station KUTV reported.
Vanguard Academy’s leaders sued state charter school officials in response, and a judge issued a restraining order that kept the targeted governing board members in their positions. The school faces a three-month probation during which it is required to rectify its issues or face closure.
Meanwhile, in July 2019, four members of the Kingston family pleaded guilty to fraud charges after federal authorities established that an Order-run business – Washakie Renewable Energy – stole a half billion dollars worth of biodiesel tax credits and laundered it through shell companies.
The lawsuit cites Washakie Renewable Energy as an example of the group’s many attempts to defraud the government.
“At times, the Order has members forge and fabricate documents, often against their will, to further [their] self-interests,” the lawsuit alleges.
The plaintiffs’ complaint added those practices facilitated so-called attempts by the Kingston Group to “bleed the beast” – a term used in polygamous communities to describe how they can benefit by defrauding the government and its taxpayers.
The Kingston Group said the concept of “bleeding the beast” is “abhorrent” and was “never a tenet” of its organization.
The group argued that its values exact self-sufficiency and that per capita its members save or contribute more to their community than the average citizen does.
‘Pure Kingston Blood’
However, the fraud accusations confronting the Kingston Group extend well beyond Washakie and other Order-run businesses.
The lawsuit explains how the birth certificates of multiple plaintiffs failed to list their biological fathers, so those men could escape the legal consequences inherent to having multiple – and often underage – wives.
Two of the plaintiffs – Michelle Afton Michaels, 22, and LaDonna “Blaklyn” Ruth Lancaster, 18 – share the same father, Jesse Orvil Kingston, the lawsuit alleges. The suit alleges Kingston family members try to preserve their blood purity – which they refer to as “Pure Kingston Blood” – by marrying and procreating with other Kingstons.
The group has called the “Pure Kingston Blood” term “fringe, unfamiliar, and somewhat offensive” for its members, and it rejects any preference for any particular family or bloodline.
Jesse Orvil Kingston is not listed on either Michaels’ or Lancaster’s birth certificates, according to the lawsuit, which additionally accuses him of fathering more than 300 children with 14 wives.
The Guardian typically does not identify people who allege to be a victim of sexual violence, but the publicly available lawsuit identifies Michaels, Lancaster and other plaintiffs by name.
Amanda Rae Grant alleges her father is Verl Johnson, accusing him of marrying 17-year-old Lori Peterson and two others to produce 33 children.
Instead of being listed on her birth certificate, Grant says the document listed a fictitious father called Kyle Grant.
The lawsuit claims that Utah state officials went so far as to track down a man named Kyle Grant for the purposes of collecting child support payments, but they concluded he was not Amanda Rae Grant’s father.
“This was told as a funny story in Amanda’s family,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Kingston Group argued that it is parents’ prerogative “to file birth records for their children how they choose within the bounds of the law”.
“This is especially true of the mother, who has the legal right to establish paternity or not to establish paternity at the time of filing,” the Kingston Group said in a statement. The statement added that the group “has not issued any specific guidance for members pertaining to birth certificates, or medical records, but encourages its members to follow the law”.
One of the lawsuit’s more shocking allegations centers on claims from plaintiff Jenny Kingston, 25, that her parents sent her to a rehabilitation center named Lifeline for Youth for six months to punish her for resisting her marriage to Jacob Daniel Kingston Jr, the son of the Washakie energy company’s boss.
She accuses Kingston Jr of physically overpowering and raping her to try to get her pregnant. Group members knew of the abuse, her complaint alleges, but did not report or stop it. Instead, she claims they used group money to get her in vitro fertilization treatment.
She later fled the group with her twin children.