Mary Nelson — that’s her last name now — tossed the handbag out the house window, lowered herself to the ground and began running toward Taylorsville’s Millrace Park.
It was 2013. Mary was leaving her family, which included her father and what she says are his 18 wives and about 200 children. The other side of the park was where Mary had arranged to meet her then-boyfriend, Bryan Nelson, and his father. Mary laid down in the back seat of the car they rented, staying out of sight. They drove to a grocery store, where a second rental car was waiting. Bryan and his dad had decided they should switch vehicles in case anyone pursued them.
Mary was a 17-year-old girl in the polygamous Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Latter-Day Church of Christ or the Kingston Group. (Some within the sect also refer to it as “The Order.”)
Mary’s mother and father did go looking for her that day. Soon, however, it was Bryan and Mary who were doing the pursuing.
Bryan developed a plan, he said, to “take down” the Kingston Group, which he accuses of being a criminal organization that commits offenses against women and children and enriches the top men in the hierarchy. The plan hasn’t come to fruition yet, but it’s off to a start.
Mary and Bryan provided law enforcement with evidence that Washakie Renewable Energy, owned by two of Mary’s first cousins, defrauded a federal program providing tax credits to biofuel manufacturers. The cousins and three other people have been indicted in what prosecutors allege was a theft of $511 million from the government.
The Nelsons — Mary and Bryan married a few weeks after that dash across the park — are telling their story to journalists for the first time. They will be featured on the CBS show “Whistleblower,” airing Friday at 7 p.m. on KUTV-Channel 2.
All five defendants in the Washakie case have pleaded not guilty to charges alleging fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. There are also counts accusing one of Mary’s cousins of trying to arrange enforcers to intimidate witnesses out of testifying. Bryan says he’s one such witness. A trial is scheduled for July 29 in federal court in Salt Lake City.
As for the sect at large, a spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society has repeatedly said through the years that members are encouraged to follow the law.
‘I thought she was beautiful’
Bryan and Mary grew up in Salt Lake County. Bryan said he hadn’t heard of the Kingston Group when he met Mary in 2013. They were both taking classes at Salt Lake Community College’s Taylorsville campus. He was 26. She was 17.
“I saw her studying, and I thought she was beautiful,” Bryan told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So I went up, and I started talking to her.”
They soon began dating. Mary told Bryan she was 18. She didn’t say much about her family at first. Many people from polygamous groups are wary of talking about their households to outsiders, given that polygamy is a felony in Utah.
Millrace Park was near the house where Mary’s family lived. After dates, Mary had Bryan drop her off at that park rather than at her door.
She eventually began to tell Bryan about her family. Mary also started to discuss her job. She says she worked at what many who have left the Kingston Group describe as the sect’s bank.
It’s an office in a building at 10 W. Century Park Way (about 2950 South) in South Salt Lake. Members deposit their paychecks there and withdraw what money they need to cover expenses. Other banking records as well as tax documents are filed at the Century Park Way office, too.
“All of The Order businesses,” Mary said, “everything within The Order is tied into that Century office.”
Mary’s mother found out about Bryan. In a lawsuit that would be filed later, Mary asserted that her mother disapproved of the relationship and started watching her more closely. Mary contends her mother made her sleep in bed with her, and the only bathroom she was allowed to use was one attached to her mother’s bedroom and had no door. Mary also alleged that her family intended for her to marry a cousin.
In her own affidavit for the lawsuit, Mary’s mother denies taking such measures to watch her daughter or that there was any plan for the then-teen to wed a cousin. The mother said she worried about the age difference between Mary and Bryan. The mother asserts the relationship started when Mary was 16 and that Mary confided she was having sex with Bryan.
Bryan and Mary, in their Tribune interview this week, denied there was any sex until Mary turned 18 and was married.
One thing on which everyone agrees: Mary decided she wanted to leave with Bryan. Bryan says his parents agreed to help. After that run across Millrace Park and the car switch, the family took Mary to Las Vegas. Nevada law doesn’t necessarily require runaways be returned to their parents. Mary stayed in what she and Bryan now call a “safe house” until she returned to Utah.
She came back a few weeks later, on Mary’s 18th birthday in fall 2013. That day, she and Bryan married at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office, where a staffer officiated.
A three-step plan
Mary began telling Bryan more about life in the Kingston Group. Bryan didn’t like what he heard.
“It's almost like if you see a kid in a burning car,” Bryan said. “You're not just going to stand there and watch. You’re going to do whatever you can to pull them out.”
Bryan drew up a three-pronged plan:
• Spur federal investigations.
• Raise public awareness.
• Engage the sect in civil litigation.
Bryan says he hasn’t found a way to sue the sect yet. In fact, members of the Kingston Group have sued the couple over how they executed the public awareness campaign.
The Nelsons published a website in 2015 with the domain kingstonclan.com. Much of the material cited public records about businesses owned by sect members and men who had been convicted of crimes. There also were lists of the high-ranking men, called “numbered men” in the sect, including Mary’s father.
Some of the men’s wives and children were listed. Text on the site accused the sect as a whole of committing sex crimes and child trafficking, among other offenses. The Nelsons also created an online petition asking for criminal investigations of the Kingston Group.
One of the numbered men sued the Nelsons for defamation and invasion of privacy in state court. The plaintiff alleged he had been unfairly linked to crimes despite having never been convicted. It was in that lawsuit that Mary and her mother traded allegations about what went on while she was dating Bryan.
The lawsuit was settled in 2018. The court docket doesn’t give the terms, and the Nelsons declined to specify them, but the website has been removed from the internet.
The couple had more luck with a related federal lawsuit. One sect member filed a copyright suit for a photo of him that was placed on the website. A judge found the plaintiff misrepresented the origin of the picture and its status with the U.S. Copyright Office. The lawsuit was dismissed and Bryan was awarded $48,564 in attorney fees.
The website said little about purported financial crimes. Bryan said he didn’t want the Kingston Group to know he was trying to report these issues to federal authorities. After multiple efforts to reach the FBI, agents in Salt Lake City agreed to a meeting.
‘You can have a good life’
Mary said she told agents about what went on at the bank. The only criminal charges resulting from those conversations have been in relation to Washakie. Mary and Bryan aren’t sure why, though they assume it’s because it is a huge alleged fraud, with the taxpayers as purported victims and a paper trail that could be followed.
Washakie was supposed to be taking byproducts — such as used cooking grease and cornstalks — and converting them into biodiesel. For every gallon manufactured, the company collected a credit from the federal government.
The indictments and related court documents have alleged Washakie actually manufactured little fuel. Prosecutors contend the company from October 2014 through May 2017 was buying and selling biodiesel, falsifying papers to make it appear as though the company was manufacturing the fuel, and collected $511 million in tax credits.
Prosecutors also allege much of the money was moved to Turkey, while portions were used to buy houses and a 2010 Bugatti Veyron — a French sports car with a sticker price upward of $1.7 million.
Mary declined to go into specifics about what she told federal agents. She is expected to be a witness at this summer’s trial.
The lead defendant is Jacob Kingston. Prosecutors have filed copies of what they say are text messages between Kingston and people he was soliciting to harm or intimidate witnesses. One text exchange references a witness who was behind “The website, etc.”
Bryan says that’s a reference to him. He says while no one has physically harmed him or Mary, they have received harassing phone calls, death threats and someone threw a brick through their window. They have moved multiple times in the past few years.
“My motivation for doing all this,” Mary said, “is to show the people [in the Kingston Group] what they're living and who they're following is ... not true. “And you can have a life outside of The Order, and you can have a good life and you can do everything that you ever wanted to without having somebody giving you the OK to having all that control over you.”
Mary said few family members have spoken with her since she left with Bryan that day in 2013.