Going public 'was a risk worth taking,' Utah polygamists say
For years, state prosecutors have known that Kody Brown claimed to be married to three women as a member of a fundamentalist Mormon family.
In fact, one of Brown's sister wives, Christine, once worked with a Utah Attorney General's Office committee on polygamy to help shed light on the practice of plural marriage. For years, the Browns have lived in their Lehi home without the threat of prosecution.
But it wasn't until August, when the family now with four wives announced it was starring in a new TLC reality series, "Sister Wives," that police stepped in to investigate their family. Lehi police said Monday they were looking into whether the Browns could be charged with third-degree-felony bigamy charges.
"We are disappointed in the announcement of an investigation, but when we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks," the Browns said in a statement issued Tuesday. "But for the sake of our family, and most importantly, our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking."
Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Paul Murphy said Lehi police had received complaints about the Browns after the reality TV show was announced. The office recently told Utah County prosecutors it's up to local police departments if they want to investigate the family.
Lehi police declined to comment Tuesday, referring only to Monday's media release. Deputy Utah County attorney Julia Thomas said authorities began investigating the Browns when they saw promotional trailers for "Sister Wives" airing on TV.
"It's generally known in the community there are polygamists in Utah County," she said. "The problem is we typically don't have them on TV admitting to breaking the law. We are being confronted with it in a very public manner."
The seven-episode, half-hour show, which airs Sundays at 11 p.m. on TLC, follows Brown, his wives Meri, Janelle, Christine and the newly-wedded Robyn, and their 16 children through their daily lives in suburban Lehi.
Preliminary Nielsen ratings show that "Sister Wives" was the cable network's highest-rated original series premiere since the debut of "Cake Boss" in May 2009. It also was one of the five highest-rated premieres in the network's history.
The Utah Attorney General's Office for years has elected not to pursue charges against the Brown family. "It's been our policy because of resources that we would focus on the most serious crimes," said Murphy, who also works as a liaison between his office and fundamentalist Mormons in plural marriages. "In the past eight or nine years, we have been looking at crimes involving child abuse, incest, fraud and domestic violence."
According to a search of state court records, the Browns apparently have no prior criminal convictions or charges.
"The closest analogy to the Browns is Hugh Hefner," Murphy added. "Here is a man who has three women. Do we want to spend state resources prosecuting these people and putting the kids in foster care?"
Lehi police didn't say when they expected to present their case to the Utah County Attorney's Office, nor did prosecutor Thomas know when charges might be screened by her office.
The family declined to make any further comments Tuesday, but in an earlier Tribune interview they stated the purpose of the show was to shed light on polygamist families of consenting adults.
"We really felt like this was such an important story," Janelle Brown said. "This was a story that hadn't been told, and we felt like there was so much benefit to showing our family."
Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.
The seven-episode TLC reality show, which launched Sunday, airs at 11 p.m. Sundays on the cable channel.