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Many Polygamists Blend Into Modern Society

The neighbors knew Anne Wilde as a divorcee with three children, but she had a secret: She was married to a polygamist, a man who divided his time among his various wives, visiting her once a week at her house in the suburbs.

"We'd play games — he'd park his car at a grocery-store lot and I'd pick him up" so that other people wouldn't see his vehicle parked in front of her home overnight, said Wilde, now a 72-year-old grandmother whose husband died five years ago.

The neighbors had their suspicions, but they never questioned her.

While the raid on the West Texas sect earlier this month has focused attention on polygamists who live in communal fashion and dress like 19th-century pioneers, many polygamists are very much part of the modern world, and live right next door in cities, suburbs and small towns across the West.

At least 37,000 men, women and children live in polygamous families from Canada to Mexico, with most of them in Utah, according to Wilde, who has become an activist for plural marriage. Law enforcement agencies do not dispute her figures.

While some men in rural Utah build large barracks-style houses with separate entrances to accommodate multiple wives, many of the state's polygamists are unattached to any particular sect or clan and live almost invisibly, under rather conventional-looking circumstances.

Each wife gets her own house; the men sneak around, often without a home to call their own. Mothers hold themselves out as single parents to PTA or school officials if they have to explain. But that is not usually a problem in a state where many lifelong residents can trace polygamy in the family tree, and where law enforcement authorities rarely prosecute the offense.

Carlene Cannon, a 37-year-old homemaker who lives in the Salt Lake City area, talks about polygamy without actually uttering the word, referring to it as her "lifestyle choice."

"I'm in a very committed relationship, that's what I tell people," she said. If pressed, she will add that she is not legally married. "In today's society, you don't really need to explain how it works, because there's so many single mothers," she said.

Sometimes the truth comes out. Garrett Kelsch grew up outside Park City in one of two nearby households kept by his polygamous father. As a high school freshman, he tried to keep the family's secret from his new classmates. One thing or two gave him away.

Kelsch, now a 34-year-old manager of a door-manufacturing shop, said he had a half-brother of the same age in the same class. "At first the others thought we were cousins," he said, "but they eventually asked about polygamy and we said, 'Yeah.'"

Kelsch said he never actively concealed his father's polygamy, but "we weren't going to advertise it."

Wilde and just about all other practitioners of plural marriage in the West consider themselves followers of the true Mormon faith. But the mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago and strongly disavows any connection to them.

Many of Utah's polygamists draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the polygamous sect raided by Texas authorities earlier this month because of allegations of physical and sexual abuse. By Wilde's estimate, about 15,000 of Utah's polygamists belong to no group at all.

According to law enforcement authorities in Utah and Arizona, many other polygamists are divided among about 11 communities, societies or orders, though Wilde said some of those groups have faded away, have few members or lack religious legitimacy.

Most Utah women in polygamous marriages are indistinguishable from other women. They take jobs or work from home to help support their families. Wilde, for example, helped run a Mormon publishing house from her home. They don't wear prairie dresses or put their hair in braids or a bun, the style consistent among FLDS women.

In black dress pants and a white blouse with a charcoal-colored jacket, Heidi Foster looks like any other 36-year-old suburban Salt Lake City mom, albeit with 10 children in her home. The youngsters' father is an occasional visitor who acknowledges another woman as his only legal wife.

Foster belongs to the Kingston clan, a 1,500-member group based in the Salt Lake City area but scattered across the Intermountain West. The group has legitimate and widespread business interests worth an estimated $150 million by some published reports, including pawn shops, a trash collection company, dairies and coal mines.

Polygamist John Daniel Kingston — Foster is careful not to call him her husband — helps support her family.

Court papers from a custody battle involving two of their rebellious teenage daughters say Kingston has at least a dozen other wives. When asked about it, Kingston has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He is believed to have more than 100 children.

Even outside the FLDS, women in polygamous relationships tend to marry young — around 17, according to research conducted at the University of Utah. The men usually wait 10 years after a first marriage to start accumulating more wives.

In the cities and suburbs, the polygamist husbands are usually nomads, said Irwin Altman, a psychology professor at the University of Utah.

"Typically, the guy doesn't have his own place. His clothes are spread all over. For privacy, some said they had to take a drive in their car," said Altman, co-author of the 1996 book "Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society."

Altman found that the men earnestly cling to early Mormon beliefs that polygamy is key to eternal salvation.