Inside 'The Order,' One Mormon Cult's Secret Empire

America's most twisted crime family – and the boys who dared to defy it

June 15, 2011 6:25 PM ET
Inside 'The Order,' One Mormon Cult's Secret Empire
Illustration by Sean McCabe

The two boys pulled into the driveway and shifted the green Honda into park. It was February in Salt Lake, cold and gray, and in the foothills above the city, a low fog hung over the mountains. They sat there for a moment, warming their hands against the sputtering heater. Then one of them exhaled slowly, his breath shuddering in the cold air. It was time. They were finally getting even.

The well-kept yellow house sat on the corner of a tidy cul-de-sac called South Bonner Circle surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. From the outside it seemed like a typical suburban home, offering few clues of the secrets that were contained inside. A passerby might catch a glimpse of children in the windows, but for the most part, the Young family kept to themselves. Their neighbors had no idea that the family were prominent members of the Kingston clan, the most powerful polygamist cult in America — and one of the most dangerous.

This article appears in the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the digital archive.

The clan, known privately as the Order, runs what prosecutors believe is one of the largest organized-crime operations in Utah, overseeing its far-flung empire from a string of secret locations and backrooms. On the surface, the operation is legit: From Salt Lake, the Order controls some 100 businesses spread out over the Western states, from a casino in California to a cattle ranch in Nevada to a factory that makes lifelike dolls in Utah. Over 75 years, the Kingstons have amassed a fortune worth an estimated $300 million, but the operation skirts the edges of the law. According to people who have left the Order, the cult exploits its 2,000 members as virtual slave labor and hides profits from tax collectors. Children born into the clan make up much of the labor force. Girls, many of them teen brides, answer phones at the Order's law office, bag groceries at its supermarket or tend to the clan's many children. Boys work its coal mine and stack boxes at Standard Restaurant Supply, a massive discount store. They are paid not in cash but in scrip, an arcane form of credit used by the Mormon pioneers that can only be redeemed at company stores. "If the Order doesn't have it," the clan teaches, "we don't need it."

The teenagers sitting in the driveway on South Bonner Circle that afternoon in 2009 knew the operation well. They belonged to the Order and had toiled in the cult for years. They also knew that much of the clan's wealth was stashed inside the unassuming suburban house on the corner. One of them approached the front door while the other kept a lookout. Then, moving quickly, the boy at the door let himself in and got to work.

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In the kitchen, he opened a closet and popped a hatch in the floor that led down to a dark, musty basement. There, stacked on the concrete floor, were crates filled with bars of silver. He snapped the padlock on the first crate and began stuffing the silver ingots into duffel bags, lugging them back out to the waiting Honda. By the time the teenagers sped away, they had made off with more than $80,000 in silver.

Later that afternoon, in another house across town belonging to the Order, a woman named Patty Kingston opened her closet to discover that a chest of gold coins worth as much as $5 million had vanished. In its place, someone had left a note. "Thanks," it read. "This didn't belong to you anyway."

As big as the heist was, it attracted almost no attention in Salt Lake. The Kingstons operate in a self-contained universe, completely cut off from the outside world. "When you're three years old, they start training you what to say if people talk to you," recalls Jeremy Tucker, a 32-year-old former member of the cult, who now works in construction. "We were taught to be polite, but to never make friends with outsiders." The clan avoids hospitals, believing government-backed doctors might inject them with a mysterious disease or demand birth records exposing the Order's lifestyle. They steer clear of banks, fearing they'll steal their money. And they avoid the police, opting to handle any disputes in their own brutal manner. One of the Order's leaders did jail time for severely beating his own daughter after she fled an arranged marriage to his brother. Boys are taught that the prophet demands absolute loyalty and that they should be prepared to defend the clan. Over the years, the Order has armed itself to ward off rivals, and once stalked and intimidated a judge who was meddling in the clan's affairs. (Paul Kingston and other leaders of the family ignored repeated requests for comment for this story.)

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"I could boil down what they're about in three words," says a member who broke with the Order. "Money, sex and power. They'll do what they need to do to defend what's theirs."

After the chest of gold was stolen, suspicion among the clan's leadership immediately fell on a group of rebellious teenagers who had left the cult a few years before. One of them, Stephen Knight, made for the most unlikely of suspects. The son of the clan's prophet, Knight, then 18, had once seemed destined for a leadership role within the Order. Instead, he had walked away from the family three years earlier to make a life of his own. No evidence directly linked him to the missing gold or silver, but his father was convinced he had played a part in the thefts.

One day, not long after the gold disappeared, Knight got an anonymous phone call. His life was in danger, the voice on the other end warned. The clan believed he had their treasure, and they were sending someone to kill him. Knight was born in Salt Lake City, the sixth child of third-generation polygamists. The Mormon Church officially banned polygamy in 1890, and some of the defiant bands of fundamentalists who refuse to give up the practice have been pushed out of the city and into the desert, where they eke out an existence in rusted-out trailers and sprawling compounds. But the Kingstons have remained in Salt Lake, operating virtually undetected in a city of more than 1 million people.

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A lawyer and an accountant by trade, Stephen's father hardly looked like the sort of man who could command the unquestioned loyalty of thousands of followers. Paul Kingston wore secondhand suits that hung off his slender shoulders, and he spoke in a flat, emotionless monotone. He kept his office on a side street in central Salt Lake. It was a grimy, derelict-looking place. The roof sagged, the carpet was worn, and the place reeked of cheap cologne. Sometimes he parked his immaculately buffed burgundy Ford Thunderbird on the curb, but it was rare to see the man himself. He was usually off visiting one of his 30 or so wives, or checking on one of the clan's many businesses, or in a backroom getting his muscles rubbed in preparation for one of his painful, 40-day fasts, a purification ritual that he endured in order to get closer to God.

Kingston taught his followers that they are the literal descendants of Jesus and one of his wives, who had come down to Earth to found a race of chosen people. He also preached a bizarre extrapolation of the Book of Mormon called the White Horse Prophecy, a dreaded prediction of a cataclysmic time when the "black race" will rise up and attempt to destroy the white man, only to be thwarted by Native Americans riding to the rescue. Those in the Order, Kingston preached, are responsible for building a master race, which is why all marriages are arranged within the original four families that started the cult.

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