The execution-style murder of three U.S. males – two of them teenagers – has cast damning light on a polygamist Mormon cult in Mexico, following the arrest of its fugitive leader.
Orson Black Jr., 56, had been on the run for more than 15 years after being charged with five felony counts of sexual misconduct against two minors in Arizona, where he is still wanted.
Last weekend, more than 100 law-enforcement officials descended on his remote five-hectare Rancho El Negro compound in the north Mexican state of Chihuahua, in a predominantly German-speaking Mennonite community.
The state has been a safe haven for Mormon polygamists since 1885, when the mainstream church sent 350 families – including that of Mitt Romney’s grandfather – across the border to avoid federal prosecution, reports Rolling Stone magazine.
The Mormon Church officially abandoned polygamy in 1890, but the practice is still observed by various splinter groups, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), of which Black was once a member.
The FLDS teaches that men must have at least three wives in order to reach the highest level of salvation. Its former spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a life sentence for sex crimes against two girls aged 12 and 14.
Black, who disavowed the church in 1990 and declared himself a prophet, has now been charged with human smuggling and extradited to the United States, where he is currently being held in El Paso, Texas.
Black’s arrest followed the discovery of three bodies near the compound in September. Authorities on both sides of the border were originally investigating him in connection with the murders, but he has since been ruled out as a suspect.
However, while Black may not be guilty of murder, there is little doubt that he's guilty of having sex with underage brides.
Two of the victims – Robert, 15, and Michael, 23 – are believed to be Black’s sons by his fourth and fifth ‘wives.’ Roberta and Beth Peterson were both claimed when they were still minors, according to their sister Pennie Peterson.
Robert and Michael, sons of Roberta and Beth respectively, were murdered on September 10 alongside 19-year-old Jesse Barlow, whose relationship to Black has yet to be confirmed. Authorities now suspect the executions may have been carried out by a drugs cartel.
Speaking to The Guardian newspaper from her home in Arizona, Pennie said: “My sister almost died when she had Orson’s son. She was only 12 when she delivered, so in 1997 I had to do something and filed charges against him for having sex with an underage girl.”
Two months ago, Pennie was contacted by a U.S. Marshall. “He asked me to sit because he had some bad news to share and I thought he was gonna tell me my sister Beth was dead, but instead he told me my two nephews were shot dead in Mexico,” she told the newspaper.
Along with Black, officials detained 26 U.S. citizens, including three of his wives, a woman described as ‘a concubine,’ and several children, all of whom had been living in Mexico illegally.
A bizarre taxidermy collection – including elephants’ feet, a lion skin and buffalo heads – was also seized in the raid. Black has since been charged with illegal possession of wildlife, CNN reports.
“We never knew who he really was,” one of Black’s Mennonite neighbours told The Guardian. “But now that the news is spreading, we keep asking ourselves: what was really going on inside those walls?”