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The RCMP has launched a new criminal investigation into the polygamous community of Bountiful, near Creston, following disturbing new evidence that eight girls -some as young as 12 -were taken to the U.S. to marry older men.
Attorney General Barry Penner last week demanded police investigate the new information and in particular look at any evidence that might support criminal charges of child sexual exploitation or procurement of children for sex.
On Friday, Penner said the polygamy case was a top priority.
"Bountiful and polygamy are quite disturbing to me, and I strongly support the legislation [that makes polygamy a criminal code offence]," Penner said.
"I'm offended by any suggestion of what has been alleged to have taken place [12-year-olds becoming brides] is akin to marriage ... What this sounds like is a middle-aged man who wanted to have sex with children."
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Annie Linteau said police are preparing to visit Bountiful as part of the probe.
"Obviously we can't discuss what we are doing in the context of the investigation, but eventually we will have to attend [Bountiful]," she said Friday.
The evidence came to light as part of the constitutional reference case before the B.C. Supreme Court that will determine the validity of Canada's polygamy law.
Linteau confirmed investigators received the evidence last week and have launched a criminal investigation.
"We're aware of the affidavits filed by the attorney-general's office," she said. "We initiated an investigation into those allegations and the investigation is ongoing."
Linteau could not say what charges the RCMP might consider.
This is the second time the RCMP has investigated the community; in 2006, Mounties probed two leaders of the Bountiful branch of the controversial Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
However, the eventual charges against Winston Blackmore and James Oler were thrown out in 2009.
A year earlier, Wendy Wiens, team leader for the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development, received a fax from Angie Voss, a child protective-services supervisor in Texas, outlining how a 13-year-old girl from Bountiful had been taken illegally to the United States by her parents and married to polygamist leader Warren Jeffs. At the time, Jeffs was 48 and a fugitive, running from charges related to having had sex with minors.
The fax was sent five months after Texas authorities had raided FLDS's Yearning for Zion ranch and taken into care close to 400 women and children.
Contacted in Creston Friday, Wiens said she would not comment on anything to do with the Bountiful case.
Christine Ash, a spokeswoman for the ministry, wouldn't comment either, saying the case was before the courts.
"Whenever the ministry is made aware of a possible child-protection issue, it will assess what that is and follow up accordingly, as to whether there is a protection concern; however, the ministry has no jurisdiction outside of B.C's borders," said Ash.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, expressed concern the Ministry of Children would not address the issue.
"The ministry cannot hide behind privacy at this point, when there is a constitutional reference on the issue," she said.
"The public needs to know that when there is an allegation that comes forward that a child may be subject to some form of sexual exploitation, that that is promptly and thoroughly investigated."
She was "deeply troubled" that over the last four years, despite an RCMP investigation and court challenges, the public remains in the dark about what might be happening with adolescent girls at Bountiful.
"We have a very important set of public values to address here, and it may engage the criminal law, it may engage child welfare, and it may require us to rethink a few things," Turpel-Lafond said. "I hope [the RCMP] has a team that will look at the issue completely, because I think at this rate there are some very significant concerns about the wellbeing of some children from British Columbia."
NDP MLA Dawn Black, an outspoken critic of polygamy, said she was upset that the government has not been able to protect the girls at Bountiful.
"It is totally unacceptable, if these allegations are correct, in a society like ours. This is [alleged] abuse of children."
About 800 to 1,000 people live in Bountiful, all members of the breakaway fundamentalist Mormon sect.