Jessica Kingston didn’t want to be a polygamist.

Not desiring to be a plural wife doesn’t necessarily mean she hoped to leave the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group. But Jessica knew the longer she waited to wed, the more likely she would have to become a polygamist and the more likely her husband would be far older than she was.

So, at age 16, she married.

“You’re just supposed to get married as young as you can,” said the now-26-year-old.

Jessica is hardly the only girl to make such a choice. In a search of public records created since the start of 1997, The Salt Lake Tribune found 65 marriages among members of the Kingston Group in which the bride was 15, 16 or 17. The two most recent of those marriages, according to wedding certificates, occurred in April.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Those two unions happened in Colorado, where it’s legal to marry your cousin. The Tribune also found three marriages in Missouri, where, until a new law raising the marriage age takes effect Aug. 28, 15-year-olds can marry with a parent’s permission. Former members of the sect say there may be dozens or even hundreds more marriage certificates at county clerk offices across the West.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

While much of the focus of any polygamous group is on plural marriages that happen outside the law, records and interviews with current and former first wives in the Kington Group lend insight into how legal marriages are facilitated. Depending on one’s view, members of the Kingston Group either take care to follow marriage laws, or work to circumvent them.

Some former sect members, including two stars of the television show “Escaping Polygamy," say girls are pressured to marry at the age most kids are learning to drive and reading “Wuthering Heights.”

The marriages, former followers say, can be used as a tool to keep girls in the Kingston Group, known among younger members as “The Order.” For their part, the brides sometimes see legal marriages as a way to avoid becoming polygamists later (and consequently being matched with a husband perhaps twice their age) or a means to escape their parents’ crowded households.

“Most of the time,” said Shanell DeRieux, a former Kingston Group member now seen on “Escaping Polygamy,” “the girl’s only choice is to have babies because that’s how we build The Order — by population.”

Free agency

(Photo courtesy Shanell DeRieux) John Daniel Kingston, front center, kneels in front of three of his daughters as they hold their wedding certificates July 3, 2008, in Grand Junction, Colo. Shanell DeRieux, second row left, was 18; the other two girls were 16. Each daughter married one of their cousins, who also are pictured with their parents. Three of Kingston's 14 wives also are in the photo. All the families belong to the Davis County Cooperative Society. While the sect is headquartered in Utah, members will travel to Colorado to wed because cousin marriages are legal there.

Current members dispute those characterizations. One woman who was married in 2014 at age 16 said she did so for the same reason most people do: She fell in love.

She also felt a religious call to wed and saw herself as mature enough to undertake such a commitment.

“It wasn’t forced,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because of stigmas that often come with being associated with a polygamous sect. “It was all on me, and, for the most part, that’s the case — where it is the girl’s decision whether she wants to get married at that age.”

“It wasn’t forced,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because of stigmas that often come with being associated with a polygamous sect. “It was all on me, and, for the most part, that’s the case — where it is the girl’s decision whether she wants to get married at that age.”

She said she knows of a few cases in which the girl was pressured by family or faith leaders to marry, “but I can count them all on one hand.”

A review of wedding certificates shows how the teen marriages are sanctioned at the highest levels of the Kingston Group. Paul E. Kingston, considered the top man, signed as a witness for four of the marriages that The Tribune found outside Utah.

For the marriages performed in Utah, Bill W. Stoddard signed as the officiant until his death in March. Stoddard was the president of the Latter Day Church of Christ, the Kingston Group’s incorporated religious organization.

The Kingston Group is believed to have a few thousand members, mostly in Utah and Idaho. In response to questions from the newspaper, Kent Johnson, a spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society, sent an email saying marriages should occur within the age of legal consent and not be coerced.

“The DCCS reaffirms that each individual has their free agency to choose whom and when they will marry,” the statement said. “They should refrain from this decision until they can be well informed to make a mature and thoughtful decision before entering into marriage.”

The statement also said that of the Kingston Group individuals who married under age 18 in the past 20 years, 95.1 percent remain married, 94.2 percent have earned a high school degree, and a third, “most of them women,” have graduated from a public college or university.

Johnson did not provide the raw data to support those statistics. The education figures he cited would be a few percentage points higher than the average for Utah as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In an analysis written in 2015, a University of Maryland sociologist found that nationwide 37 percent of people who marry before age 20 divorce in the first 10 years.

Not every Kingston Group follower marries as a juvenile. The Tribune, with assistance from former sect members who reviewed the records, also found 20 cases in which both the bride and groom were at least 18.

Nor are youths from polygamous sects the only teens who marry in Utah. In Salt Lake County, for example, there were 45 marriages in which the bride or groom was 17 or younger, according to data from the county clerk’s office from Feb. 1, 2016, to April 10, 2018. Four of those appear to be couples from polygamous groups.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

A nationwide debate is underway about teens, especially girls, marrying. A body of research suggests the teenage brain is not developed enough to make the kind of long-term decision needed for marriage. In Utah, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, plans a bill that would raise the minimum marriage age to 18. Romero has said her concern is for all girls, not just those in polygamous sects.

Yet it’s teen marriages in the Kingston Group that spurred the Utah Legislature to act this year. It passed a bill adding forced marriage into the state’s definition of sexual abuse. Former sect members testified in favor of the measure, but it’s unclear whether the pressures faced by teens in the Kingston Group constitute forced marriage.

Some former teenage Kingston Group brides acknowledge they weren’t forced to marry; they made a choice. It was just the best choice, some say, among their bad options.

“To get out of this s----y situation, I have to get into another s----y situation,” said Kollene Snow, who married at 16 and is DeRieux’s full sister.

“To get out of this s----y situation, I have to get into another s----y situation,” said Kollene Snow, who married at 16 and is DeRieux’s full sister.

For now, Utah law says a 15-year-old may marry with the consent of a parent or guardian and the permission of a juvenile court judge. A state court website says the judge “must conclude that the marriage is voluntary and in the best interests of the minor.”

But 16- and 17-year-olds in Utah need only the consent of a parent to wed. Idaho, Colorado and Nevada, where the The Tribune also found Kingston Group marriages, have similar age and parental-consent requirements.

‘Get her married’

(Photo courtesy of Kollene Snow) Kollene Snow, 16, poses in her dress before her 2009 marriage in West Valley City. The couple have since divorced. Snow says she chose to get married to escape an abusive living situation. She favors raising the legal marriage age to 18.

At age 15, Snow wanted out of the Kingston Group.

She is the fifth of her mother’s 12 children. Her father, John Daniel Kingston, has 14 wives. She grew up in Woods Cross and “hated” The Order all her life, she said in a recent interview.

At 15, Snow ran away from home, wound up in a foster home and later was returned to her mother. Her parents placed her in what she called a “repentance home,” where she wasn’t allowed to communicate with anyone without supervision.

The doorknob to her room was removed. Snow said she was forced to fast, pray and read the Bible. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house until she decided whom to marry.

“They believe we’re God’s chosen people,” Snow said of the Kingston Group followers, “so you should start having kids as soon as possible.”

Snow and her mother, Shirley Hansen, have differing stories on what the mom’s role was in her daughter’s marriage.

Snow contends her mother was one of the people who told her she needed to think about whom she was going to wed.

Photo by Nate Carlisle, The Salt Lake Tribune | Shirley Hansen, seen here July 21, 2018, stands along 2100 South near State Street in Salt Lake City. Two of Hansen's daughters legally married when they were under the age of 18 to young men in the Kingston Group.

Hansen, 50, in a recent interview, said she told her daughter that wanting to leave home was the wrong reason to get married.

On this much, though, mother and daughter agree: Snow’s father was the primary driver.

“What he told me was,” Hansen said, “‘Get her married so we don’t have to take care of her anymore.’”

Had Snow been a better behaved, more devout member of the Kingston Group, Hansen said, there may not have been a push to have her legally marry at 16.

Earlier in its history, the Kingston Group had plural wives under age 18. Members who have left in recent years say that changed after some of Paul Kingston’s brothers were convicted of crimes related to child abuse, sex with a minor or incest.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Polygamist John Daniel Kingston, left, in attendance at a memorial for the 13 (and one still missing) victims of a Sept. 14, 2015, flash flood. The memorial was held in Maxwell Park in Hildale, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015.

Now, former members say, girls who will be plural wives — meaning they have only a spiritual marriage to their husband — are left alone until they are 18 so laws about sex with a minor won’t apply. Girls who agree to become plural wives tend to be more devout and usually live in homes without their husband, thus receiving less scrutiny.

Lawful marriage and the way it binds people together legally and financially, Hansen said, is seen as a way to keep the more rebellious girls in the Kingston Group.

“The ones that misbehave, they try to push them to marry as soon as they can,” Hansen said. “So it means being a first [wife]. The ones they don’t think they have to worry about, they don’t push them as hard.”

Jessica Kingston said a girl’s devotion and attitude are often measured by her view of polygamy. Members of The Order are taught they need to be in a plural marriage to reach the highest heaven.

When a girl doesn’t want to be a polygamist, that information is shared among boys and men in the sect. Jessica Kingston said she has heard males talking to one another about a girl and say, “‘If you’re going to marry that girl, she’s going to have to be a first wife because she won’t live polygamy.’”

For parents, there can be other practical considerations in letting a teen marry, Hansen said. Three weeks after Snow married a 21-year-old man in Davis County, Hansen’s 17-year-old daughter legally married a 24-year-old man in Salt Lake County.

That daughter was born with a form of heart disease and had long acted responsibly in caring for it, Hansen said. So when her husband pushed for that daughter to marry, too, Hansen thought she was mature enough. Besides, the mother said, the girl needed her husband’s health insurance to treat her condition. For that, she would have to be legally married to him.

No. 1 choice

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Kingston claims she was groomed into choosing marriage at age 16 by her parents and the polygamous sect. By 18 she was pregnant with her first child and ended up having four children in four years. She's since left the marriage and wants the legal marriage age raised to 18.

Former and current members of the Kingston Group say that kids are taught from a young age they one day will need to pray about whom to marry. Girls are told they will need to pray to God so he might show them who their No. 1 choice for marriage is.

“My 4-year-old comes to me and says she has to find out her No. 1 choice [of whom to marry] in The Order,” Jessica Kingston said.

Boys are taught they will need to receive revelation from God on whom to marry. Marriage preparation can accelerate at puberty.

Hansen said during family home evenings — nights when a man’s family gathers for religious studies and games — her husband would take girls 12 and older who were single and lead them in a teaching. He would talk to them about marriage and thinking of whom to marry, Hansen said. Snow said the classes also taught the girls to be submissive to their husbands and to keep a good house for them.

Dating or romance among young people before marriage is forbidden in the Kingston Group, but the sect does hold dances. When someone is interested in marriage, the process is something more like a job interview than a courtship.

It begins with the potential groom. If God gives him direction on whom to marry, he goes to his dad.

If the father believes his son received true direction from God, the son is sent to Paul Kingston or one of the people he designates to consider marriages. If Paul Kingston or the designee signs off, the groom next goes to the girl’s father. If that father says yes, the groom talks to the girl.

While all that is happening, the potential bride is supposed to have been praying about whom to marry. When Jessica Kingston was 15, her father told her she had four choices — apparently the number of suitors who had spoken to him about marrying her.

Jessica was given the list of suitors. Her top choice — the one whom she felt God told her to marry — was a man five years older than she and to whom she was related on both sides of her family tree. The relations are distant enough they wouldn’t encounter any of Utah’s prohibitions on marriage between siblings, first cousins or aunts/nephews and uncles/nieces. The suitor had asked her to dance a few times at The Order’s youth social events.

That wasn’t the only reason Jessica liked him. During the approval process, the young man had begun texting Jessica — something forbidden but that she says is common among Order teens who have an interest in one another. He told her he believed one did not need to practice polygamy to reach heaven.

But Jessica’s No. 1 choice was not her father’s. She said her father didn’t think the suitor was a good student. (Jessica’s dad and the young man had taken courses together at the University of Utah.) The father preferred another who had inquired about marrying Jessica.

Jessica suspects her dad was pushing her toward another man. She says marriages can be used in The Order to gain or maintain favor among the parents of the brides and grooms.

“It’s all political,” Jessica said. “And then, when the men get mad at each other, they won’t let the [other] man’s sons come forward” to marry one of their daughters.

Hansen said some men try to use their children to improve their status in the sect. Her husband, John Daniel Kingston, told his children to “marry up,” she said, meaning marry into a well-regarded family in the Kingston Group.

Jessica’s dad told her the wife can get only as high as her husband rises. He even had charts showing who were the higher families in the sect so his daughters knew where to look for a mate.

That usually means marrying a Kingston descendant. But lots of people in the sect are already descended from that family, Hansen said; that’s why there are so many cousin marriages in the Kingston Group. According to written histories, John Ortell Kingston, father of the current leader, also encouraged his family members to marry other kin to improve their own bloodline.

From Hansen’s perspective, the entire Kingston Group marriage process is like being told you can have anything to eat as long as it comes from a certain table.

“They teach the girls it’s their choice,” Hansen said, “but [say], ‘Here’s the selection.’”

Eventually, there was a meeting between Jessica Kingston, her parents and Paul Kingston. Jessica’s father relented during the meeting and gave his approval for his daughter to marry her No. 1 choice. Paul Kingston told her congratulations.

A few days later, the groom-to-be picked up Jessica and took her to Murray Park. He had arranged for a banner to be placed over a bridge there.

“Will you marry me?” it read.

The couple’s wedding certificate says Stoddard officiated the ceremony April 26, 2008, in West Valley City. Jessica Kingston wore a white dress. The groom wore a suit. No recordings or photos were allowed during the ceremony. The bride was 16. The groom was 21.

Pressure

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shanell DeRieux was married at 18 to a husband in the Kingston Group. She also is a star of "Escaping Polygamy." DeRieux was photographed in Layton, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

Among those Kingston Group brides who marry as minors and for whom The Tribune was able to find birthdates, the average age was 16 years, 7 months and 12 days. Their grooms averaged 20 years and 18 days.

Girls who reach their mid- and late teens can start to feel the pressure to wed. Jessica Kingston said when word gets out that a boy or young man has asked a girl’s father for permission to marry her, friends and family are walking up to that girl asking, “Did you pray about him?”

DeRieux says she was still high school age when her father told her she needed to pray about whom to marry, get married and “build The Order.” Her father also started calling her mother and prodded her to pressure DeRieux to get married.

The pressure became so intense DeRieux stopped going to dances. Instead, she volunteered for extra shifts at the Kingston Group-run coal mine near Huntington, where she worked as a dispatcher.

At 17, she agreed to marry a man in his early 20s.

“I knew I wasn't supposed to marry him,” she said, “but I almost did to get everyone to shut up and leave me alone about marriage.”

The plans fizzled because her mother didn’t believe DeRieux had received direction from God to marry the man.

DeRieux did marry the next year at age 18 to a cousin who was 19. They did so July 3, 2008, in Grand Junction, Colo, where records show two other couples from the Kingston Group married that day. DeRieux says the other two girls were her half-sisters, both age 16. Their grooms were 22.

(Photo courtesy Shanell DeRieux) Shanell DeRieux, then called Shanell Snow, center, stands with her mother, Shirley Hansen, right, and her father, John Daniel Kingston, in this photo from her legal wedding day, July 3, 2008, in Grand Junction, Colo. Also pictured are DeRiux's now-ex-husband and ex-mother-in-law.

To go to Colorado, DeRieux said, she and her fiancé drove to Price, where they jumped into a 15-passenger van carrying their parents, the other two sets of brides and grooms and their parents.

When they arrived in Grand Junction, all three couples filled out the papers for a marriage license. The parents of the 16-year-olds also completed a form granting their permission.

Colorado does not require an officiant or a ceremony to marry. Once the couples signed the certificates and turned them back in to the Mesa County clerk, they were legally married.

DeRieux said she and her husband were not allowed to live together or consummate their marriage until they had a religious ceremony the following month. She received no sex education or premarital counseling.

Plural divorces

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shanell DeRieux was married at 18 to a husband in the Kingston Group. She also is a star of "Escaping Polygamy." DeRieux was photographed in Layton, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

DeRieux’s marriage effectively ended in June 2010. She and her husband had moved to Billings, Mont., to work for a coal mine. According to Montana court documents, the couple had an argument at their apartment and DeRieux’s then-husband threw her down a flight of stairs.

He then pinned her on a bed, the documents say, and wouldn’t let her call for help. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He served one day in jail.

The couple’s divorce became final in 2011. DeRieux remarried at age 21 to a man who isn’t from the Kingston Group.

Snow said her marriage fell apart over her not liking the Kingston Group and her husband wanting to have another wife. Her husband knew she didn’t want him to have a plural spouse, she said, but his father told him he needed to have one. Their divorce was finalized in July 2012 — a little more than three years after they married.

Jessica Kingston said within a year of getting married, her husband started looking for a plural wife. Finding one wasn’t difficult.

Jessica said her husband was on a group text that went around listing girls or women who had not yet married with jokes about how old the females were getting. Jessica saw the list.

The young women ranged from about age 18 to 22. She said the marriage disintegrated when her husband married — spiritually — one of her half-sisters, who was 22 at the time.

Jessica said, strictly speaking, she and the other teen brides she knows chose to get married, but added: “It’s not much of a choice when they’re groomed to do that.”

She and her husband had four children with whom they share custody. Jessica has begun working with Hope After Polygamy, a charity started by the cast of “Escaping Polygamy” and other former Kingston Group members to assist people leaving polygamous sects.

Jessica as well as Snow, DeRieux and Hansen all favor raising the legal marriage age in Utah and other states to 18. Johnson said the Davis County Cooperative Society takes no position on the issue.

The woman who married in 2014 at age 16 and asked not to be identified is still with her husband. She does not favor a change in the marriage age. She said marrying at 16 mitigated the pressures U.S. society places on her to have statuesque looks and be immodest.

“There shouldn’t really be a reason for an age limit,” she said. “If someone is mature enough, they should be able to do whatever they want.”

The now-20-year-old said she and her husband have started a family of their own. If that child comes to her at age 16 wanting to marry, she said, she will have questions. Whether she gives her blessing, she said, will depend on the answers to those questions.

But age alone won’t determine her answer.