President Donald Trump’s eldest son visited with a Utah gun-maker last week that has been under scrutiny for its ties to a $511 million biofuel fraud perpetrated by members of a polygamous sect.
Photos posted on social media Saturday and Sunday show Donald Trump Jr. handling a rifle made by Desert Tech at a range along the Great Salt Lake. The company makes rifles and accessories catering to precision target shooters, law enforcement and foreign militaries.
“Awesome time, guys,” Trump Jr. wrote on Instagram below a photo of him aiming a rifle. “Can’t wait to do it again soon.”
He followed the text with three American flag emojis. Desert Tech also posted a photo with Trump Jr. giving a thumbs-up beside company owner Nick Young. The 42-year-old Trump Jr. went fishing in Utah on Thursday and often recreates in the Beehive State.
Young, in a phone interview Sunday evening, said he and some other gun-makers were invited by the owner of the private gun range to meet Trump Jr. Young handed the president’s son a rifle to fire.
“There’s no politics,” Young said. “We’re just shooting guns. I like to shoot guns. He likes to shoot guns. That’s all.”
Desert Tech has gained attention for its ties to the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Latter-Day Church of Christ, the Kingston Group or The Order. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the sect, which includes members who practice polygamy, as a hate group.
Some former members of the church have called the sect a criminal enterprise that is inherently abusive to women and children. Some of those former members on Sunday criticized the sight of the U.S. president’s son promoting a company linked to the Kingston Group.
“It’s disgusting that any member of the Trump family is all smiles taking a photo with someone that is a member of this disgusting cult,” former Kingston Group member Melissa Ellis wrote in a text to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Shanell DeRieux, one of the stars of the reality television show “Escaping Polygamy,” said she wasn’t surprised to see a connection between members of the Kingston Group and the Trump family.
“It validates the well-known rumor that The Order leaders have friends in high places,” DeRieux said in a statement to The Tribune, “and suggests to me, that ‘the cries of a few women and children’ won’t be heard.”
A spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society has said it encourages its members to follow the law.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a notice it intended to seize the building Desert Tech occupies in West Valley City. The government alleges the building is among the real estate through which executives with Washakie Renewable Energy laundered money.
Washakie participated in a federal program that paid the company to manufacture biodiesel from products like used cooking grease or cornstalk. Washakie CEO Jacob Kingston and three members of his family have pleaded guilty to crimes in federal court and admitted they made little biofuel and instead falsified applications to the government to collect the federal subsidies.
A fifth person, California-bases businessman Lev Aslan Dermen, was convicted of 10 counts related to the scheme at a trial earlier this year in Salt Lake City. The pursuit of assets tied to the fraud remains pending.
No executives with Desert Tech have been charged with crimes. Young on Sunday said he does not know the status of the federal effort to take the building. He repeated what he told The Tribune in 2019 — neither he nor his company has had anything to do with Washakie and never took any money from it or the defendants.
“Jacob is my cousin,” Young said last year. “But just because he’s my cousin means I do business the way he does? I absolutely do not.”
Desert Tech won an award from the U.S. State Department for helping catch terrorists seeking to buy firearms. Young said his company also has good records with the U.S. Department of the Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
This month, Desert Tech began a campaign to donate 5% of its sales toward providing its rifles to law enforcement agencies “in need.”
Desert Tech leases its space from the building owner. A review of those ownership records showed the building belongs to a limited liability company for which Young was once listed as the manager. The LLC was transferred in 2016 to one of Young’s family members who had offices listed in another building prosecutors say was connected to the fraud.
Dermen’s attorney, Los Angeles lawyer Mark Geragos, at trial argued it was members of the Kingston family, and not his client, who pushed the fraud. Geragos said Sunday the photos of Trump Jr. with Desert Tech reinforced his view.
“It might go a long way in the selective prosecution in the Dermen case,” Geragos said.
Sentencing for all five defendants has been placed on hold until the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
After the Dermen verdict, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber stood outside the courthouse and referred to the Kingston Group as a “crime syndicate.” That phrase was repeated Sunday by Bryan Nelson, who with his wife, Mary, supplied federal authorities with evidence of the Washakie fraud.
“It is highly inappropriate, disturbing and disgusting for the son of the president to be ‘friends’ with someone like Nicholas Young (Kingston),” Bryan Nelson wrote in a statement to The Tribune. “There needs to be dignity, honor and integrity from someone like Donald Trump Jr. All of which are now well known to be missing.”