Two former sect leaders found guilty of polygamy in British Columbia

CRANBROOK, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian court on Monday found two former leaders of a breakaway Mormon sect guilty of polygamy after a decades-long investigation of the small, isolated group.

Winston Blackmore, who is accused of having two dozen wives, arrives at the BC Supreme Court in Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Todd Korol

Winston Blackmore and James Oler, former bishops of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints community of Bountiful in southeastern British Columbia, were found guilty by a British Columbia Supreme Court judge of one count of polygamy each.

Blackmore, 61, was accused of practicing “a form of polygamy” or “a kind of conjugal union” with 24 women between 1990 and 2014, according to court documents. He has fathered at least 146 children, according to media reports.

Oler, 53, faced the same charge involving five women between 1993 and 2009.

Under Canadian law, the maximum penalty for polygamy is five years in jail.

Blackmore spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse in Cranbrook after the verdict, saying that he was living his religion and that it was very important to him and his family.

Oler left without speaking to reporters.

Blackmore’s lawyer, Blair Suffredine, told the court during the trial that he would launch a constitutional challenge of Canada’s polygamy laws if his client was found guilty.

Blackmore refused to acknowledge the charge against him and enter a plea, forcing the court to record a not guilty plea. Oler entered a not guilty plea.

Under Canada’s century-old polygamy law, the British Columbia government had been weighing prosecution since the early 1990s against members of the community of 1,500 residents.

Despite multiple police investigations into claims of abuse in the community, it had declined to pursue polygamy charges because of concerns that doing so would violate constitutional freedoms of religion.

In 2011, the British Columbia Supreme Court affirmed that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and did not violate religious freedoms.

The residents of Bountiful have been living in the community a short walk from the Idaho border since the late 1940s.

The Canadian group is part of the same sect led by jailed U.S. polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

The mainstream Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned polygamy in 1890.

Writing and additional reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman