Polygamists skeptical of woman who testified to Legislature about being sex-trafficked

HB99 • Woman’s testimony in support of bill draws skepticism from measure’s opponents.

| Courtesy A screen shot of Mike Noel, rigth, and Michelle Neilson, left, during discussion of Noel's bigamy bill on Thursday, February 23, 2017.

Polygamists say that a woman who last month gave emotional testimony to lawmakers about being sex-trafficked through several sects was never involved in polygamy.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, recognized Michelle Neilson on the floor of the House of Representatives last month after she testified in support of his HB99, which would increase the penalties for polygamy when it is prosecuted in association with fraud or abuse.

"I was abused within several polygamist groups within the Salt Lake County area here," Neilson told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 1, after raising her right hand and swearing to tell the truth. "I was trafficked from one group to the other for money."

Neilson said her grandfather introduced her to multiple polygamist sects, including the Apostolic United Brethren, which is headquartered in Bluffdale, where she grew up. She also referenced the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingstons; the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; and the LeBaron Group.

[Neilson is sworn in and testifies at 3 hours 2 minutes 46 seconds.]

"There is child trafficking going on. I was trafficked from one group to the other for money," Neilson told the committee.

"I also was shown that I would be murdered and killed by their blood atonement if I did not accept their doctrine," she added.

She said one of her abusers was Rulon Jeffs — president of the FLDS before his death in 2002. He was replaced by his son Warren Jeffs, who is serving a sentence of up to life in a Texas prison for crimes associated with sexually abusing underage girls he married.

Later in February, Noel recited Neilson's story before the Utah House, then commended her courage and asked her to stand up while representatives gave her an ovation.

But polygamists opposed to the bill say they have found no evidence that Neilson was ever in, or trafficked by, polygamous sects.

Joe Darger, the person leading the effort to defeat HB99, said he has asked all the polygamous churches he is in contact with to search their records.

None, Darger said, can find any record of Neilson or Michelle Pollak, the other name she has used, according to public records.

Public records confirm Neilson grew up in Bluffdale. A 1971 Salt Lake Tribune article lists Neilson, then 16 years old, as queen of that year's Bluffdale Town Days.

Neilson's ex-husband, Les Pollak, said he doesn't believe her story. They met when they were both Brigham Young University students, he said Tuesday. They were married from 1978 to 1991.

Pollak said he met all of Neilson's immediate family, including her parents and grandparents. They were devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially stopped practicing polygamy in the late 19th century and excommunicates members found to be polygamists.

"It never came up while I was with her," Pollak said of the polygamy and abuse claims. "It was never discussed."

In a phone conversation Tuesday with The Tribune, Neilson, 62, was adamant that what she said was true. She also said that the police force in Bluffdale and Saratoga Springs are investigating what she called a "cold case" arising from her story.

A spokesman for the police force shared by Bluffdale and Saratoga Springs did not return a call seeking comment about the criminal investigation.

Neilson did say that the abuse wasn't confined to meetinghouses or homes of polygamists. She said she also was abused in sex rituals in Masonic temples in Salt Lake County.

"There was sexual abuse on the altar," she said. "That happened at the Masonic temple."

But she declined to provide details of who abused her, which polygamous sects they were in, or who married her at age 12, as she has asserted. She cited the ongoing criminal investigation as the reason.

"I don't need your verification," she said. "What I have done is expose things that have been done to me and others."

Shirlee Draper, who was at the hearing that night to testify against the bill, said Neilson's testimony sounded strange. Draper is a former plural wife in the FLDS who is now works in social services.

"I was very puzzled," Draper said Tuesday. "I was racking my brain trying to place her because nobody of that description ever came through the FLDS and wouldn't have. We were so closed off from the world, we didn't interact with other groups."

Darger said Neilson appears to be a case of polygamy opponents utilizing someone with a story that helps their cause.

"Because this gets so charged, people listen to it," Darger said. "They can say polygamy and everyone gives them a lot of attention, and this got attention."

[Noel and the Utah House of Representatives recognizes Neilson at 1 hour 31 minutes 18 seconds.]

After Neilson testified in favor of HB99, it passed the House Judiciary Committee. Bill sponsor Noel did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

The bill adds criteria for being prosecuted for bigamy: The offender must live with the extra spouse and "purport" to be married. Current state law requires only one or the other.

HB99 would keep bigamy a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, but those penalties could increase to one to 15 years if bigamy is prosecuted in conjunction with crimes such as abuse, fraud or human smuggling. Anyone leaving a polygamous marriage and reporting abuse or protecting a child would receive amnesty.

Those who oppose the bill — including Darger, who has three wives, and the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition — have said it makes criminal behavior of what people who don't purport to be married can do legally. They say that the state already has statutes targeting fraud and abuse, and those wanting to use the amnesty provision of the bill would have to weigh whether they want to expose sister wives or husbands who didn't commit abuse.

HB99 did not receive a hearing in the Utah Senate. To pass there, senators would have to bring it to the floor for a vote. The Legislature's general session ends Thursday night.


Twitter: @natecarlisle