The Mormon state of Utah has launched a crackdown on polygamists who for generations have used their religious beliefs to justify marriage to underage relatives.
Although multiple marriages are illegal, state attorney Mark Shurtleff insists it is not a witch-hunt against Utah's estimated 20,000 to 50,000 polygamists, who live mostly in large family groups or cults.
'The bottom line is that we have to protect the children, especially the young girls, who are the victims here. People have looked the other way for too long,' he said.
In a high-profile move last week, police raided a picnic attended by 800 members of one family and arrested 32-year-old Jeremy Kingston, wanted since May on a charge of incest stemming from his 1995 wedding to his 15-year-old niece and cousin, LuAnn.
This week in Salt Lake City, Rodney Holm, a police officer from the state's polygamous Hildale community, will face trial on charges of bigamy and unlawful sex with a 16-year-old he took as his third wife four years ago when he was 32.
The alleged victim, Holm's first wife's sister, conceived two children before she was 18, according to court documents. Rod Parker, attorney for the father of 21 children, said the case represented 'a return to the religious persecution of the 1880s'.
Holm belongs to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Kingston to the Latter Day Church of Christ. Both extreme groups base their beliefs on the Mormon religion, which for nearly 50 years advocated plural marriages then outlawed them in 1890 when Utah's founders sought admission to the federal union.
Kingston's arrest came after LuAnn, now 23, went to the state attorney's office three years after walking out on her husband. 'I didn't want to hurt them, or to make a big scene or anything, but after being out for a while you see things more clearly. Something needed to be done,' she told the Deseret News.
Shurtleff says several more investigations are ongoing, conducted by the state's so-called 'polygamy tsar', Ron Barton, a retired police officer hired to root out polygamists who take child brides or commit welfare fraud, rather than consenting bigamous adults.
'I lie awake at night thinking of some of the abuses that these kids go through, and it's time for it to stop,' said Shurtleff, whose office drew up laws, adopted nationally earlier this year, creating the new crime of child bigamy.
'I've had the leaders of some of these groups in my office telling me that the girls marry of their own free choice but that isn't the case. They lied to me. They think a couple of prosecutions and I'll leave them alone, but that's not going to happen.
'The message to these tyrants is that we are going to investigate you and prosecute you, and the message to the victims is that there is help available to you. In the past we've reacted when a victim has come out, but now we're going to be proactive.'
The new child bigamy law carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years for anyone convicted of taking a second wife under the age of 18. Ordinary bigamy laws allow for a sentence of up to five years.
Many of the bigamists live on the Arizona-Utah border in secretive communities. There are also numerous 'freelance' bigamists, who follow no group rules but instil fear in their younger victims, convincing them their salvation will be lost if they do not submit to 'God's will'.
One such individual is Brian David Mitchell, who calls himself the prophet Emmanuel and is alleged to have abducted the Mormon schoolgirl Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home in June 2002 and held her for nine months.
During her captivity, Elizabeth was made to become Mitchell's second 'wife' in a bizarre ceremony, after which he is said to have raped her. Mitchell and first wife Wanda Barzee will face trial this autumn for aggravated kidnap and sexual assault.
Thomas Green, one of Utah's worst offenders, is serving a five-year jail sentence for the rape of a 13-year-old he married in 1986. Green had five wives and 33 children.
Observers of polygamist groups in Utah, where 73 per cent of the state's 2.4 million residents are Mormons, believe the crackdown could herald the end of a way of life pursued for generations.
'The ability of the polygamist community to operate with impunity is drawing to an end,' said Rick Ross, executive director of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute monitoring US cults.
'The Mormon church, which controls Utah, is realising polygamists are an embarrassment. The state is using child abuse as an issue to tackle the wider problem.'