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After fleeing polygamist clan, Weber County woman leads fight to help other victims

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TAYLOR — For years after she fled a polygamist clan, Melissa Ellis kept quiet.

“I’ve come a long way,” she said in the living room of her western Weber County home recently, pet birds chirping in a cage in the corner.

“It took a long while to talk publicly about it,” she said. “I stayed quiet because my mom raised us that if we decided to leave, we just leave, and leave the group alone.”

But after years of concentrating on working to support her four children, then finding a new husband and getting further on with her life, Ellis decided to start helping other polygamy refugees.

She said her birth family regards her as an outcast, and legal disputes over her children’s custodial arrangements drag on. She blames the leaders of the Kingston clan and said they perpetuate practices that are illegal and abusive to wives and children.

According to a Utah Attorney General’s Office guide on polygamy groups, the Kingston clan was founded in the 1930s by excommunicated members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who held to polygamist beliefs that the mainstream church had disavowed decades before.

The Kingstons have 5,000 to 10,000 members in Utah and other Western states, Ellis estimated. She said her ex-husband says he’s a persecuted minority because of his polygamist beliefs.

“But I finally decided that, you know what, if they’re not going to leave me alone, then why should I let them keep continuing to do things that I know are wrong?” she said. “If I step up and speak, something might be able to get changed.”

FROM REFUGEE TO ADVOCATE

This winter, she became a key voice in the drafting of House Bill 214, which makes people who flee polygamy eligible for reparations from the Utah crime victims’ fund.

And since the bill’s passage, she has become vice president of a polygamy refugees advocacy group, Sound Choices Coalition.

“Our whole thing is to educate the public about the harms of polygamy and the reality of it,” said Sound Choices director Angela Kelly.

As Kelly was gathering support for the HB 214 concept, she posted on social media for help from people who had left polygamist groups.

Ellis responded.

“Very few people that come out of polygamy will ever talk,” Kelly said. “Thousands have left, but their families shun them. Finding anyone willing to talk publicly is very difficult.”

Kelly said she interviewed Ellis to make sure she was ready to take the step and that she felt safe.

The Kingston clan, Kelly said, “is probably the most dangerous of them.”

“She feels like she is safe,” Kelly said. “Honestly, I don’t know how brave I’d be.”

Some polygamist groups have espoused “blood atonement” doctrine that demands physical punishment for unforgivable sins, including leaving a plural relationship or the group.

Two sons of the Kingston clan are jailed awaiting trial in a major fraud case that include charges of witness intimidation.

Federal prosecutors allege Jacob and Isaiah Kingston, founders of Washakie Renewable Energy in Box Elder County, defrauded the government of $511 million in biofuels tax credits and hired an enforcer to intimidate or injure witnesses.

PUBLIC EDUCATION CAMPAIGN PLANNED

Ellis participated in the reparations bill’s drafting and testified for it during a House committee hearing. The Legislature passed it and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature.

“We’re going to educate police departments” and state child protection officials about HB 214, she said.

Under the bill, polygamy refugees can file police reports about their having left environments where bigamist relationships occurred.

The victims then can apply for grants from the state fund, to be used for medical bills, psychological therapy and similar expenses.

Ellis spoke out against misconceptions about the bill. No taxpayer funds are used — money in the victims fund comes from fees charged to criminals in court — and convictions are not required for a victim to win a grant.

Bigamy prosecutions are rare.

“They all think the laws don’t apply to them,” she said of the clan, but regardless, HB 214 aims to help victims and does not speak to perpetrators.

“At least it gets the healing started and gets the help going for a person to be able to start to move on,” Ellis said. “That’s the goal. It’s to help people who want to leave, it’s not to go after” polygamist group members or leaders.

‘SAVE MONEY TO GET ANOTHER WIFE’

Ellis’ own experiences frame her current activism. She survived and can articulate what others who want to leave may face.

“I left with my kids and a suitcase,” she said.

It was 2012. She and her husband had four children younger than 5. Both had been raised in the Kingston clan, which is known by names such as the Order, the Davis County Cooperative Society and the Latter-Day Church of Christ.

They lived in Huntington, Emery County, where Ellis worked at a coal mine before it closed.

She said she was shocked when her husband told her after their marriage that she had to pay their bills so he could save money to get another wife.

“I started my own day care and still paid all the bills,” she said.

Ellis’ parents were members of the Kingston group but her father was not a polygamist. Neither was her husband, at the beginning. But then an ecclesiastical leader met with them and told them her husband had to find a second wife.

The leader told her husband “he had to start when they were 12 or 13 to groom them so by the time they were 18 they would know that he’s the one they were supposed to marry,” Ellis said.

“The thought just made me sick,” she said. “My ex did start to talk to girls that young and I told him he needed to stop. I wanted to focus on our family.”

Ellis said she stopped sleeping with her husband about a month later.

“And he raped me and I left a week later,” she said.

She said she had received good advice from her mother years before.

“My mom was raised by a single mom in Idaho and she was married and had three kids in that first marriage, and that guy beat her,” Ellis said.

“Her being from outside the group, she taught us that abuse is never OK, that once was too much. Physical abuse happened once to me and I knew that if I stayed it would happen again.”

FINDING SAFETY NETS

During a visit to Salt Lake City, Ellis had seen a billboard advertisement by Holding Out Help, a nonprofit that provides emergency relief to polygamy refugees.

Ellis saw an opportunity for a lifeline if she left.

“They got me in a safe house for a couple of weeks,” she said. “I was the first person they ever helped that had a high school diploma. I was able to get a job and find my own place.”

Holding Out Help’s founder, Tonia Tewell, said her group has assisted 1,700 people over 13 years. Ellis is one of the success stories.

“She’s quite remarkable,” Tewell said. “Today that girl is doing amazing. She is married to a great guy and is turning around and starting to give back.”

Ellis and her new husband, Denison, are raising eight children together, four from each parent. Denison was a widower when he met Ellis about four years ago.

The couple raised $2,500 for Holding Out Help in a Red Dress Run, Tewell said.

“That is a massive deal for us, and it came from somebody who we served,” Tewell said. “They wanted to give back and they helped us.”

Ellis said she received months of therapy and realized she had been emotionally abused for years in the Kingston group.

“We were always taught that we had to do what the ones over us told us to do,” Ellis said. “They even taught that if they told you to murder somebody, you murdered somebody.

“If you get in trouble for it, it’s OK because you did what you were told. You’ll be fine in heaven as long as you do what you’re told.”

‘FAMILY DOESN’T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE BLOOD’

She was surprised by how much help she found on the outside. Co-workers at a Salt Lake valley daycare where she worked after she left Huntington befriended her.

“The owner and her girlfriend came to my wedding,” Ellis said. “They’re my family. They taught me that family doesn’t always have to be blood. Your family can be who you are happy with now.”

Ellis said she wants to illuminate what’s happening to children and to women feeling trapped in polygamous relationships.

“They’re indoctrinating kids into this illegal lifestyle,” she said, and there’s mental abuse even if physical abuse is not occurring.

“There’s a difference if it’s between consenting adults,” she said. “They’re choosing to be that way, versus the abuse that goes on — ‘You don’t do this, you don’t marry who you’re supposed to, you’re not doing what God wants.’ That’s all abusive and that’s more of what needs to be addressed.”

Ellis added, “If we don’t start talking, the government’s not going to do anything about it.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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