Polygamists believe they live by a "higher law" than their fellow Utahns.

They believe their eternal salvation depends on devotion to the illegal practice of plural marriage. They wrap themselves into a philosophy that separates their secret societies from mainstream culture in the Beehive State.Polygamy has been called "Utah's dirty little secret," and anecdotal evidence indicates the practice is growing.

That growth is a horrifying trend for women who have left the practice and an irritation to state officials, who say they don't track the number of polygamists in Utah, but are well-armed with a list of reasons why it is hard to deal with problems in the culture.

Utahns clearly want leaders to take action on those problems.

Some 92 percent of people surveyed in a poll for the Deseret News want the state to more aggressively investigate suspicions of child abuse, sex abuse, underage marriages and welfare fraud within Utah's polygamous communities.

Utah's polygamy seeds were sown in its Mormon pioneer history. Now practicing polygamy is grounds for excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the practice appears to be thriving.

"Tales of Abuse, Incest Frame Utah's Dirty Little Secret," screams a headline earlier this month from the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

Newsweek magazine tells the "Secrets in the Desert."

"A Flourishing Secret Society; Polygamy in Utah Thrives," says The Washington Post.

And there could be surprising consequences from recent notoriety surrounding polygamy.

- An investigator with the Utah Attorney General's office says the attention may lead outsiders to look at Utah as a "melting pot" for similar philosophies. "The media and all the rush that's going on may be promoting it more," says Mike King.

"(Jim) Harmston (founder of a hardy polygamist group in Manti) says every time this kind of publicity occurs, he has more people who come wanting to join their ranks."

- A Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret News last week shows 75 percent of people surveyed believe there are negative consequences to the national attention directed toward Utah's polygamist culture.

- A group of former polygamists would like Utah officials to consider the impact a new generation of young people who believe they live by "higher laws" could have on Utah.

"Why don't we do something?"

Dozens of interviews conducted in recent weeks with state officials, former and current polygamists and law enforcers illustrate the complexity of the issue.

And with all this information, one factor becomes clear: There are no easy answers to seemingly simple questions.

"Why doesn't Utah do something about polygamy?"

"Why can't we find the people who are raping young girls, those who are marrying young women off before adulthood, and put them in jail?"

"How can we permit this?"

Talks with former and current polygamists give insight to the secrecy of the culture. Investigators say unless someone comes forward - and people rarely do - crimes against children that are known to occur in some polygamous groups cannot be prosecuted.

And public agencies who track any number of Utah demographics do not track welfare or sex crimes or bankruptcies or domestic abuse specific to polygamy communities.

So how do Utahns reconcile the news that a teenage girl in the notorious Kingston polygamy clan was allegedly married off to her uncle and severely beaten by her father when she ran away from the older man?

What do we do with reports that another young girl from a polygamous community died in childbirth; and that she may not have been given medical care because her parents didn't want questions about her lifestyle?

How do we handle the idea that some polygamous wives report themselves as single mothers so they can live off the public's welfare?

What is known is that aggressive recruiting, conversions, birthrates and the perception that Utah is slow to knock on the doors of these secret societies may be bolstering the numbers of polygamous communities. And the state seems unprepared to stop it.

"We are polygs"

She is the smallest in a group of seven women and girls quietly making their way up and down the aisles in a Sandy grocery store.

Whispering to each other, they select items from the shelves, gathering their handmade skirts to crouch and study labels, all the while shrinking from a stranger's questions.

The girl is probably 5, and she sneaks a furtive glance in a stranger's direction. She is watching as the person asks the women she's with about their lifestyle. The girl can't answer the questions; she wouldn't dare.

She has been taught suspicion of outsiders; taught to be leery of the "gentiles" who have taken on the sinful ways of the world; taught to reject and avoid association with a population that does not understand her family's way of life.

But the girl is too young, and despite her conditioning, she turns and shouts a pronouncement over her shoulder before two women usher her away:

"Yes. That's right," she says proudly. "We are polygs."

Stereotypes don't apply

This is the well-worn schoolyard name for those who are part of Utah's unique polygamist communities.

"Polygs."

The staccato reference is the only thing short and simple about a complex and baffling part of this culture.

A study of polygamist groups in the Beehive State shows a diversity among those who practice as divergent as the Utah landscape on which polygamists make their home.

- There is Jim Harmston, who said four angels visited him and "ordained him to the power and authority of the Apostleship." In 1994, he formed the True & Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days in Manti.

"We believe in and live plural marriage because it is a commandment of God and we fear God more than man," says Harmston's testimony on the group's Internet Web page.

- There is Graydon Henderson, who was converted to polygamy and lives with five wives and 21 children under one roof in Draper. The family has no insurance.

On finances, Henderson says: "It takes quite a cash flow to take care of that many people."

On feelings for that many wives: "There are times when you have a better relationship with one than others."

- There is the story of a young Cedar City student from a polygamist group.

Her school principal and superintendent said she was a neat girl and good student, but she stopped coming to school at age 14.

The next year, the principal heard she died in childbirth.

- There are those who go online to solicit partners in the "poly-personals."

Ad #62: "Couple in Utah not members of any organization, group or religion, interested in meeting a lady who is committed to God and living his principles. Looking for someone who is serious about polygamy and . . . also must be of serious mind, conservative, and full of a Christ-like love. Willing to stick it out."

Ad #70: "I am a very affluent medical doctor, real-estate investor. currently living with 3 women (18, 19 and 21 years old). I am planning on moving to a huge estate, a 35-room home on 30 acres of land. I believe in biblical writings regarding polygamy and I am seeking at least five more women, teens to early twenties . . .."

- There is Elizabeth Joseph, a career attorney and one of seven wives of polygamist Alex Joseph in the Kane County community of Big Water.

"I believe that if polygamy didn't exist, the modern career woman would have to invent it," she said in the most recent issue of Marie Claire magazine. "It is the one lifestyle that offers an independent woman a real chance to have it all."

- There is Mary Potter, 40, a former polygamist, who still believes the practice is a good idea. She formed The Women's Religious Liberties Union, a group dedicated to forcing Utah to repeal the state law that bans polygamy.

"There are a lot of women in polygamy who are happy," she says.

- There is her ex-husband, Roy Potter, who is no longer a polygamist but supports the practice. "I've heard it called like a fulfillment of a fantasy. But the people . . . who really do it, find out it is not a game, that it's not fun. It's serious business because it's part of their religious makeup."

Potter was fired from the Murray Police Department. He sued the the city of Murray in federal court in 1983, calling to question the ban on polygamy. A U.S. District Court judge rejected the claim that polygamy was a practice protected by the U.S. Constitution. An appeals court agreed.

- And then there is Laura Chapman, a former polygamist now on the board for Tapestry of Polygamy, a support group that wants the state to intervene in polygamous families. "As long as Utah doesn't prosecute polygamy, it's going to continue to grow."

Raised in a polygamous family on the Utah/Arizona border, Chap-man says the results of crimes that occurred in her family are devastating.

In families like hers where there are numerous wives and as many as 30 children, those children "grow up fatherless."

Boys grow up thinking they're above the law. "They grow up getting a mixed message about what it is to be male; part of what they learn is about spiritual principles. The other part is about sex and power."

Chapman says she was sexually abused by various members of her immediate and extended family growing up. "Boys learn from their fathers," she said. "It was like growing up being surrounded by pedophiles."

20,000 to 50,000 strong

Court decisions and public disdain haven't stopped the practice.

Irwin Altman, a University of Utah professor of psychology, spent nearly a decade studying urban and rural polygamous families.

He has co-authored a book about polygamists in the West, but it's hard to know how many people live the lifestyle. The groups either don't keep vital statistics or they keep them quiet, he said.

However, conversions and births show the numbers involved in the lifestyle continue to grow, Altman says. His best guess is that 20,000 to 50,000 polygamists live in the West.

Some former polygamists believe that number to be closer to 80,000.

King, the investigator with the attorney general's office, isn't sure the numbers are growing. But he does say groups engage in vigorous recruitment efforts. Techniques were illustrated in a group run by Arvin Shreeve, who is now in prison.

Leader of a bizarre Northern Utah polygamist cult that practiced lesbianism and child sexual abuse as part of its doctrine, Shreeve was convicted on two child sexual abuse charges in the early 1990s.

Interviews with women in the group revealed Shreeve preyed on divorced women with children.

For example, some of the women were on a cleaning crew, and if they heard about a co-worker who was divorcing or facing tough financial times, they would invite her to Shreeve gatherings.

Ronald Bierer, a former member of an Apostolic United Brethren polygamous community in Pinesdale, Mont., said he expressed interest about polygamy and got a personal visit from Owen Allred, head of the AUB.

Bierer, who left the group after financial conflicts with AUB leaders, said he was attracted to the idea of "a bunch of poor people trying to build a brotherhood."

Once people are members of a group, polygamist leaders keep them in by telling them they are breaking a "covenant with God" if they leave.

People who grow up in a polygamous culture know nothing else, only that mainstream society is full of outsiders who will lead them away from a holy life.

And eternal salvation depends on living the principles, say former polygamists. To defy a leader is to go "straight to Hell," said Brian Davis, another former AUB member in Pinesdale.

Where they are

The Apostolic United Brethren, headquartered in Bluffdale, is one of the most visible in a network of polygamist organizations along the Wasatch Front.

Other groups include:

- Harmston's True & Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days in Manti.

- The Kingston clan in Northern Utah, Davis and Salt Lake counties.

- Rulon Jeff's group in Colorado City, which also has a compound near the entrance to Little Cottonwood Canyon. The group's financial arm is called the United Effort Plan.

- A group formerly headed by Ervil LeBaron. One of LeBaron's wives shot former UAB leader Rulon Allred to death in 1977. Other high-profile criminal cases have been tied to the group over the years.

- Alex Joseph in Big Water, Utah.

And there are thousands of independent "fundamentalist" polygamists scattered throughout the West.

All respond with different forms of indignation to the latest wave of scrutiny. Some are taking cover, waiting for this latest wave to pass. Some are threatening lawsuits. Others are trying to explain themselves and their practices.

Owen Allred's voice was shaking in his first-ever press conference held earlier this month at his attorney's Salt Lake office.

Leader of the 5,000-member AUB, Owen Allred pleaded for state leaders not to make him and his followers "the enemy."

Family dynamics

"We have blended families, single-parent families, gay and lesbian family structures and on and on. (Polygamists) are another part of the fabric of American society," U. professor Altman said.

He and Israeli anthropologist Joseph Ginat wrote a book, perhaps the first real comprehensive look at polygamy in the United States.

The university professor learned about family dynamics including courting, honeymoons and how families add a new wife, celebrate holidays and decorate houses.

Polygamists in the West are creating a new society, which Altman calls a "culture in search of itself."

And in the recent furor over polygamy, society has tended to create a one-dimensional view: women as slaves, men as sex maniacs. "The fact is there is tremendous variability in them as individuals, as families," Altman said. "Just as there is among us."

"My wife and I are looking."

Salt Lake District Attorney Neal Gunnarson talks about a caller who said he could point out 500 ways the LDS Church has been changed since Joseph Smith. An excommunicated Mormon, the caller said he can't follow the LDS Church but he will always believe in Joseph Smith. Therefore, the caller tells Gunnarson, he must believe in polygamy.

"Do you have more than one wife now?" Gunnarson asked the caller.

"No, but my wife and I are looking."

Coming Monday/Tuesday: What should - or can - be done about polygamy.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Deseret News poll

Do you think the state of Utah should crack down on polygamy as a crime itself, or just leave polygamists alone as long as they are not violating any other laws?

Definitely crack down 35%

Probably crack down 14%

Probably leave alone 31%

Definitely leave alone 15%

Don't know 0%

Do you think the state should more aggressively investigate suspicions of child abuse, sex abuse, marriages to minors and welfare fraud within the polygamist communities?

Definitely be more aggressive 77%

Probably be more aggressive 15%

Probably be less aggressive 3%

Definitely be less aggressive 1%

Don't know 3%

From what you know or have heard, are there positive or negative consequences to the national attention directed toward Utah because of all the recent attention to polygamy?

Definitely positive 5%

Probably positive 5%

Neither positive or negative 10%

Probably negative 41%

Definitely negative 34%

Don't know 6%

This poll of 407 Utahns was conducted Aug. 18-20 with a margin of error of +/-5.0 percent, by Dan Jones & Associates, an independent polling firm whose clients include other organizations and sometimes political parties and candidates.

Copyright 1998 Deseret News.