04/21/2017 11:47 EDT | Updated 04/24/2017 09:22 EDT

Same-day marriages with girls sharing same last name cited at polygamy trial

CRANBROOK, B.C. — Dozens of marriage certificates, some referencing weddings taking place on the same day involving girls with the same last name, were entered as evidence Wednesday at the trial of two fundamentalist church leaders charged with polygamy in British Columbia.

Winston Blackmore is the head of a religious group in Bountiful, a community in southeastern B.C. where residents are known for practising a faith that condones plural marriage.

Blackmore is accused of marrying 24 women and is standing trial alongside former leader James Oler, who an indictment says has four wives.

Each is charged with one count of polygamy at the trial.

Both men served as bishops for the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is often referred to as the FLDS.

Marriage records presented in court Wednesday were obtained in 2008 when police raided the church's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas.

Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in seizing more than 700 boxes of evidence from the ranch, presented the marriage records in court.

In addition to other documents, police seized marriage records from the fundamentalist ranch in Texas that numbered "in the high hundreds, if not over 1,000," Hanna said.

The marriage documents include a space where "duration" is noted, and the majority of them read "time and eternity."

Brian Hales, an expert in the history of the Mormon church, told the court Mormons believe that in some cases marriages can last forever.

The FLDS broke away from mainstream Mormonism over the latter's move to renounce polygamy around the turn of the 20th century, after endorsing the practice about 50 years earlier, Hales said. Mainstream Mormons dispute the FLDS being an offshoot of the dominant Mormon church, which is based in Salt Lake City.

Hales, who has written several books on polygamy and Mormonism, testified that fundamentalists who practise polygamy would have to leave all but one of their wives if they wanted to join the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints.

A former polygamist could remain friends with his previous wives but could no longer live with or have sexual relations with them, he said, though they would be expected to support any children they may have had with their wives.

"So, in the parlance of today they could be friends, but not friends with benefits?" asked Blair Suffredine, Blackmore's lawyer.

"In today's parlance, yes," Hales replied.

Suffredine challenged Hanna about the accuracy of the seized records, pointing to several examples of single-page documents with records of marriages that took place years apart.

"These were created on some separate records somewhere else and then consolidated onto one page at some later date," Suffredine suggested to Hanna.

"I believe that's likely," Hanna replied.

"So, in general terms, it could be assumed that all of the records where there are two records that are both titled marriage records were created as separate records somewhere and then someone consolidated them onto one page?" Suffredine asked. 

"Yes, that is feasible," said Hanna.

The judge-alone trial is expected to last at least two weeks and include testimony from Blackmore's first wife, who is also Oler's sister.

The case has been more than 25 years in the making, with RCMP first investigating allegations that residents of an isolated, religious community were practising plural or "celestial" marriage in the early 1990s.

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