Utah versus 1 man, 5 wives, 25 children

Guardian, UK


Duncan Campbell in Snake Valley, Utah
Saturday May 12, 2001
The Guardian

The long journey from Salt Lake City to the rambling collection of trailers that is home to Tom Green, his five wives, all of whom are pregnant, and 25 of his children, takes you past Confusion Mountains and Trout Creek, past grazing antelope and deer, and a great-horned owl nest. The journey that could take Mr Green to a long prison sentence in a trial that starts in Provo, Utah, on Monday is also long and complex, though less poetic.

Mr Green has been charged with four counts of bigamy, the first such charge for many years in a state of some 40,000 polygamists. Many feel it is prompted by a desire to remove the association of polygamy from Utah and to present a modern image for the Winter Olympics billed for Salt Lake City in February.

To Mr Green and his wives and supporters, it is an attack on freedom of religion and expression. Polygamy was an integral part of the original Mormon religion and is part of Utah's heritage. The church founders followed an Old Testament practice that served a dual purpose of populating a rugged and barren state.

But Washington strongly opposed it, President Lincoln signed the Anti-Bigamy law in 1862, and in 1871 Mormon leader Brigham Young was arrested for "lewd and lascivious cohabitation" with his 16 wives. Polygamists are now excommunicated. Relatives of Mr Green and his wives have been jailed in the past, but one attempt at prosecution - in 1953 in Short Creek on the Arizona border - led to scenes of children being snatched from their mothers, and scared off district attorneys. Until Mr Green's arrest, it was live and let live.

Tom Green, 52, grew up as a Mormon in Salt Lake City and studied church history at university. Having learned that plural marriage "had not really been done away with, just put underground", he decided that polygamy was the true path.

His wives, whom he married as teenagers, come from polygamous families. He has always been happy to talk about it. Too happy, as far as Utah is concerne d. When he appeared on national television last year with his wives speaking about polygamy, the county attorney back home, David Leavitt, the brother of Utah's governor, Mike Leavitt, decided to act.

Tom Green is running late but his five wives and most of his children - all of whom are aged two to 14 - are at home around their array of trailers in Greenhaven, Snake Valley - a wild, desert area reached by dirt roads and mountain passes some 200 miles south of Salt Lake City. They moved here after being evicted from a trailer park in the state capital four years ago, for being polygamists.

From one of the cabins they run a telemarketing sales operation, selling magazine subscriptions to Newsweek, the Reader's Digest, and the like. Mr Green has been in this business for 25 years, having previously run a dry cleaners.

Different roles

The "sister-wives", as they call themselves, all with long hair, long skirts and no make up, all have different roles.

Hannah, 24, has just completed the Las Vegas marathon and trains on the flat lunar landscape around their encampment. Cari, 25, is sawing timber to build a porch. LeeAnn, 26, who runs the telemarketing business, is leafing through photos of herself and her daughter with a view to modelling. Linda, 28, and Shirley, 30, explain the case against their husband.

"The Mormon church is embarrassed by polygamy and we tell people that it still exists," says Linda, whose grandparents were jailed for polygamy in the 1930s.

One of the ironies, she says, is that the marriage services they have conducted are not recognised by the state yet Mr Green is being prosecuted for being a bigamist. "Bigamy is meant to involve deceit and fraud yet we all know about each other - the whole world knows. Putting Tom in jail is just going to tear apart a family."

Mr Green is far from a stereotypical religious zealot. An outgoing, red-haired, bearded man, he wears a baseball cap which he usually puts on when he reads Harry Potter to the kids at night, although he think s Tolkien beats JK Rowling. "My goal is to become as educated as I can and push all my children to be more educated than me, and have them do the same with theirs." He would like them to go to college, he says.

His great-grandfather, from Tayside in Scotland, converted to Mormonism when he emigrated to the US. He fled with his "plural wives" to Canada to escape jail in the 1880s. Tom Green has an extensive knowledge of Scottish history and supports the Scottish National party.

Linda defends polygamy on practical as well as religious grounds: "I coordinate with the other wives who spends time with Tom," she says. "We usually just take turns. I look at everybody's situation and they express their desires and their needs so that everyone gets their fair time with him. Sometimes it's pretty challenging... You have to think of the other person more than yourself."

The Greens have some allies. The American Civil 19Liberties Union says that the prosecution amounts to a violation of a right to privacy. But they have many opponents, too, both among the Mormon church and women's groups who argue that girls who marry into polygamy are deprived of their education and career, and are too young to know their own mind.

A group called Tapestry Against Polygamy, started by six women who left polygamous families, has successfully lobbied for the state marriage age to be raised to 16. Mr Green is being investigated for the statutory rape of Linda, since she was 14 when she had her first child. Linda says that she "fell in love and saw no reason to wait".

She is also anxious that the girls should be properly educated. "We have never told our children that they have to be married at a young age... Our main concern is that if they want to have a family like this they have to prepare themselves so that they can provide for a family. It's been 10 to 15 years since we all have been with Tom and we all have a very successful relationship."

Mr Green was offered a deal, he said, whereby if he either left the state or agree d never to talk to the media again, the case could be quietly dropped. He has refused. He believes his chances are no better than 50-50 because the judge, jury and prosecutors are all likely to be Mormons. "It's like having a complete Catholic tribunal sitting in judgment on Martin Luther. Seventy-five percent of Utah's population is Mormon and 98% of the legislature.

Rattling the sabres

"When we were on the radio, a lady called up and said why don't you polygamists go out into the desert and start your own town away from us decent folk. I said the polygamists already did that - it's called Salt Lake City."

Mr Green says that he believes the prosecution is being undertaken in the same spirit in which the Atlanta authorities cleared the homeless from the streets prior to the games there.

"I was tempted to move out when they started rattling their sabres," he says as children clamber over him, "and then I realised that all these guys are descended from polygamists _ For them to become vindictive and attack the integrity of the very lifestyle that brought them here, their own legacy and heritage, I think that's more criminal and immoral than anything I've been charged with."

He is busy preparing for jail, which could involve five years to life, so does he regret talking so publicly? "Not a bit. I was raised to believe this was the land of the free and you were free to believe what you want, and have the freedom to say what you want and not have to hide."

The families' future remains uncertain. Linda says that a dream for the family would be to move to Scotland. "Would they accept us there?" she asks.

As Utah approaches the Olympics, the case may come back to haunt its authorities. If Mr Green is acquitted, the costly prosecution will appear misguided. If he is convicted, the state will be shown to be leaving 25 children without a father with whom, as even the prosecution accepts, they have an excellent relationship.

The state may discover that there are not too many gold medals to be wo n in this particular competition.


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