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.
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.
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.)
"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.
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.
When Stephen was a boy, the clan would gather for the New Year in a warehouse in the city for its annual ritual: the numbering of the men. His father stood on the stage and called out the names of the men who were to receive one of the clan's highest honors. "Brother Ron Tucker," he would intone, "come and get your number." According to the Order's interpretation of the Book of Revelations, only 144,000 numbered men will be allowed to rule in heaven under God. Many of these men are also given "stewardship" of the Order's business holdings — sent out to run the clan's coal mine or ranches, or to oversee one of its many storefronts.
That Stephen's father sat atop a mafialike organization was a secret kept from him for most of his childhood. When he was three, his mother led him into a building controlled by the clan and pointed out an intense man lifting weights in the gym. "That's your Uncle Paul," she said. (Like most kids in the clan, Stephen wasn't told who his father was until he was old enough to be trusted to lie to protect the Order.) Back then, Paul Kingston stood around five feet ten and weighed close to 200 pounds. He had yet to lose his hair, and thanks to his fanatical devotion to healthy food and alternative medicine, he had the ropy build of a well-toned athlete. He also had dozens of children — a brood that would eventually grow to around 300 — and he had a hard time telling them apart.
But it is likely that Kingston could recognize some of himself in Stephen. They both have the same high cheekbones, the same pale skin, the same wide-set eyes. Noticing Stephen, he put the barbells down and came over to the boy. He asked him if he was being obedient, then excused himself to talk to Stephen's mother. "He seemed like the most amazing guy," Stephen recalls.
It would be several more years before Stephen learned that Paul Kingston was his father, and that his mother was just one of his dad's many wives. And it would be several years after that before he stole from his father for the first time.
While his dad was running the order from Salt Lake City, Stephen grew up on a cattle ranch called Washakie, near the Idaho border. Situated at the base of a rugged mountain range, the Order's spread sat in a pristine valley of glistening hayfields and open pasture. The land had once been home to the Washakie Indians, and as children, Stephen and his 15 full brothers and sisters played among the wind-swept ruins of a Native American cemetery. Their father rarely came by, and because the nearest town was 18 miles away, the kids forged a fierce bond among themselves. "We were off on our own out there and really close," Stephen says. "It felt like it was us against the world." His older brother Richard, a burly diesel mechanic, taught him how to fix cars. Another brother, Ben, showed him how to mend fences. In summer, the kids swam in the reservoir as their mother, Richaun, watched, the boys doing back flips off the rope swing into the water; at night, as the sun set behind the mountains, they all sat together to watch the clan's buffalo herd grazing in the pastures. "It was all fun," Stephen recalls. "We'd sleep on the chicken coop in the summer and shoot raccoons. Or we'd set traps and raise them as pets."
In many ways it was an idyllic childhood, except for the fact that the ranch also doubled as a work camp for disobedient clan wives and rebellious kids. The family believed that discipline would rein in the boys and that hard labor would make the girls more supplicant to their husbands back in the city. "It was a wild place," says Scott Cosgrove, a former detective with the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office, who remembers the ranch as a broken-down spread, guarded by a feral pack of boys who patrolled the fence line from the back of a pickup armed with shotguns. "The clan kids from there would come to school not properly dressed for the cold, and they were always getting in fights. You'd show up for a welfare call, or a domestic-abuse call, and it was just real run-down."
For Stephen and the other kids on the ranch, the highlight of each week came on Sundays, when they traveled the hour and a half south to Salt Lake for church. Sometimes his father read the Book of Mormon from the pulpit and talked about things regular Christians would recognize, like tithing or repentance. But mostly he talked about the history of the Order and his ancestors, the men who had started the clan.
The Order was founded by Elden Kingston, Stephen's grand-uncle, at the height of the Great Depression. As lore has it, Elden was the "one mighty and strong" predicted by Scripture, who "holding the scepter of power in his hand" would "set in order the House of God." With thick white hair, a lantern jaw and a commanding presence, he had no problem attracting followers. Like other fundamentalists of that era, he believed the Mormon Church had lost its divine authority when it renounced polygamy in 1890, so he persuaded three other families to join him in establishing their own sect. They threw away their possessions, donned matching blue overalls, and pitched canvas tents on a patch of land north of Salt Lake that would come to be known as the "Home Place."
As time passed, his dogma became even stranger. He went days at a time without eating, convinced it helped provoke visions, and believed that by "the laying on of hands" he could heal his followers from sickness and disease. He became obsessed with homeopathic treatments and herbal remedies, teaching followers that through proper diet they could "live to the age of a tree." When lightning struck a tree at the Home Place, he taught his followers that the tree had divine powers and was a gateway to heaven. His followers erected a crude stone cross nearby in his honor, covered with inscriptions of the letter "K" (for Kingdom or Kingston). His most bizarre beliefs, though, concerned the occult. When one of his favorite wives died, he missed her so much that he dug her up from her grave. He then severed her index finger, cleaned off the three bones, and carried them with him the rest of his life, believing that the totem kept her spirit with him.
When Elden died in 1948, leadership of the Order fell to Stephen's grandfather, J.O., a short, miserly man with bony shoulders and thinning hair. J.O. was just as frugal as his brother — he lived in a dilapidated shack with planks missing from the porch — but he had a better head for business. He trained the women how to rip off the government, a scheme the Order called Bleeding the Beast. They would trek into state welfare offices, their kids in tow, claiming that they had no idea who the father of their children was, or that he was a truck driver who had left them destitute. The grift was exposed decades later, in the 1980s, when the clan paid a $350,000 settlement for swindling the government through welfare fraud. Later the Order reportedly bought slot machines from mob-controlled companies. To hide the scope of his organization, J.O. took great pains to never show his wealth and taught his followers to do the same. He bragged that he had worn the same black shirt every day for a year. He also shared his brother's fascination with herbs and natural medicine. He became particularly obsessed with a plant called comfrey, which he believed would protect his clan from the nuclear war that would usher in the apocalypse. He mandated that children should drink tea brewed from the herb every morning, and that Order members should feed it to their cows.
J.O. had some 80 children by 13 wives, but his favorite was Paul, an excellent student who made friends easily. As a favored son of the prophet, Paul had the freedom to disregard the strict discipline his father imposed on other members of the Order. One day, for laughs, he and his half brother Ron Tucker stole some napalm from an Order army-supply store, drew lines of it in the street and lit it on fire as cars drove by. The boys also bought cigarettes wholesale through a small clan-owned market run by their older brother and sold them at school. "It was all just innocent teenage stuff," recalls Ron, who has since left the clan. "But within the Order, where drinking soda pop was against the rules, it was a pretty big deal."
When Paul turned 21, he married Richaun Dye. Unlike other girls in the Order, Richaun was refined — she didn't wear hand-me-downs, and at clan dances, a long line of boys waited to dance with her. "She was definitely the pick of the litter, and that's why Paul got her," Ron recalls. Paul already had two wives, but he and Richaun were married in a secret ceremony at her parents' house. J.O. presided, while Richaun's father officiated the wedding, promising the bride that if she obeyed her husband, she would be guaranteed a spot in the Celestial Kingdom, the highest level of heaven. After the wedding, Richaun chose the name Knight randomly — a practice designed to prevent prosecutors from proving that men in the Order have multiple wives.
"They seemed happy," Ron says. "I could tell she loved him, and it seemed like he loved her too." Within a year, Paul Kingston would take a fourth wife. By the time he was 30, he would have more than 10.
As he grew older, Stephen turned out to be as rebellious as his own father had been as a boy. The Knight brothers weren't afraid to fight, or to stand up to authority. "They were the type of kids you didn't mess with," says Robert Owen, a former member of the clan. "If you messed with one of them, you were messing with them all."
When Stephen was nine, an accident at Washakie set in motion a chain of events that would eventually prompt him to leave the cult. It was Mother's Day in 2000, and Stephen and two of his brothers were speeding up a dirt road for dinner at an aunt's house. Suddenly, Stephen's brother David lost control of the truck and it rolled over, killing David instantly. "His face was crushed," Stephen says now, matter-of-factly, his eyes going blank for a moment. "I felt for his pulse, but he was already gone."
That night, Paul Kingston arrived at the ranch. The family gathered in the living room. Still stunned at the sudden loss of their brother, Stephen and his siblings were numb with grief. Then their father said something they never expected. "This is your fault," he thundered, glaring at them. "If you were more obedient, this wouldn't have happened."
"After that, everything changed," Stephen says. "My mom was never the same. She didn't want to be in that house anymore; it reminded her of my brother." To test her devotion, Stephen's father began calling her in the middle of the night and telling her to move the family to a new location. Over the next several years, Stephen bounced from the suburbs of Salt Lake to the clan's ranch in Nevada. Consumed with guilt over his brother's death, Stephen lashed out. He picked fights at school, shot a teacher in the face with a water gun and refused to do homework or answer questions. "He was angry and confused," says a former member of the cult. "He didn't have anyone to help him process what had just happened."
Taking advantage of his status as a son of the prophet, Stephen began bending the rules even further. Because of the clan's distrust of banks, the Order had cash hidden all over the place, a poorly kept secret within the family. "They'd keep it in basements, in filing cabinets, in a big safe in one of Paul's offices," says Levi Kingston, a former clan member. "If you knew where to look — and the Knight boys did — it was easy to find." In his teens, Stephen and five of his half brothers stole $4,000 from their father. "We figured it was ours anyway," says Stephen, explaining that the clan hadn't paid the boys for bagging coal. "But we paid it all back."
Eventually, Stephen was sent back to Washakie and was placed under the supervision of his uncle, one of the family's most feared enforcers. A short, blustery man with a hair-trigger temper, Daniel Kingston had reportedly once kidnapped two boys at gunpoint and led them out to the Great Salt Lake (the charges were later dropped). At Washakie, he forced clan children to decapitate cows with chain saws to toughen them up, and sometimes beat the children for some infraction of the Order's rules like forgetting to face the Home Place three times a day and pray.
One afternoon, as Stephen and his cousin were taking a break from fixing a tractor that had broken down in a hayfield, Daniel Kingston pulled up. When he noticed that the boys had stopped working, he became enraged. He charged across the field and started brutally beating Stephen's cousin. When he had finished, he walked toward Stephen, who was sitting on the tractor. Stephen calmly waited until his uncle got close, and then he reached behind the seat and pulled out a shotgun, leveling it at his uncle. "If you ever do that again," he said, "I'll blow your head off."
It was an astonishing moment in the history of the clan. "It empowered Stephen — before that, no one had ever stood up to Daniel Kingston or any of them," says a former member. "I think it scared them."
It was also around then that Stephen, at the age of 14, began to see the clan for what it really was. On weekends, he was sent out to work at the Order's coal mine with other teenagers. Boys as young as 14 labored in the workshop. Older teenagers were crammed five and six to a room, sleeping on the floors of trailers. According to former Order members, they worked long shifts sorting coal and operating heavy machinery in unsafe conditions. At clan gatherings, girls who were still in their teens danced with men old enough to be their uncles, whom they were sometimes forced to marry.
With the Order's leaders taking so many wives for themselves, the clan's younger men were often unable to find anyone to marry. Stephen's father seemed to marry a new girl every year, each one younger and prettier than the last. He slept with a different one each night, in accordance with their ovulation cycles, and sometimes disappeared during lunch to have sex with a favorite. While the Order preached strict abstinence to its children, forbidding even incidental contact between the sexes, there seemed to be no rules after marriage — especially for the clan's leaders. Incest is endemic in the clan, with uncles marrying much younger female relatives; in 2003, police showed up at an Order barbecue and arrested a clan member for marrying his underage cousin.
According to former members of the Order, decades of inbreeding have resulted in rampant birth defects throughout the family. Some children are born blind, others with missing fingernails or undersize heads. One baby deemed to have too many deformities was allegedly put in a shoe box and left to die. Mark Shurtleff, the Utah attorney general, has spent years investigating the clan, gathering birth certificates and genealogical data, and has come to believe that the cult is guilty of a long list of crimes, including child labor, tax evasion, welfare fraud, polygamy and the sanctioning of underage marriages to blood relatives. So far, however, despite Shurtleff's efforts, the insular and highly secretive nature of the Order has prevented him from finding sufficient evidence to bring a case strong enough to dismantle the clan.
"I strongly believe they are an organized-crime family," Shurtleff says. "When people hear 'organized crime,' they think of mobsters. I don't think they're organized crime in that regard, but the racketeering statute defines it as any conspiracy or pattern of illegal activity done in concert with others. If they are money-laundering or making money in support of polygamy and incest, then they probably meet the statute."
Stephen didn't know what the law said — he only knew that the people he loved were being abused and exploited by his own father. He no longer believed in the Order, but he knew that leaving would mean being shunned by his own family, and because he had been forbidden from making friends outside the clan, there would be few people in the world he could turn to. "It's hard to leave when that's all you've known," says one former member, who was forced to marry her cousin when she was 15. "I was scared to death when I left." From a clan ranch in Nevada, Stephen called his brother Ben, who had left the Order a few years before. While some despised Ben for his apostasy and refused to speak with him, Stephen had remained in touch with his brother.
"Come and get me," Stephen said. "I'm done with this shit."
"What took you so long?" Ben said.
Like other teenagers who leave fundamentalist Mormon communities, Stephen was not prepared to enter the world at large. To cope with the disorientation and loneliness of leaving one world for another, many turn to drugs. Another group of kids called the Lost Boys, who were kicked out of the polygamist cult the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, ended up on the streets of Las Vegas and Phoenix, some turning tricks for drugs like meth and heroin.
Stephen moved in with his brother. To deaden his feelings of isolation, he started smoking a lot of pot and sitting around the house all day listening to country music. "All I like to do is work on cars and hang out with friends and ride my ponies," he wrote one night on his MySpace page. "I am in love with old cars and horses. I don't really have too many friends, but the ones I do, I wouldn't trade for anything."
Among Stephen's friends were two of his cousins, Luke and Scott Brown. Short and chubby, the Brown boys looked up to the Knight brothers. Like Stephen, the boys were considered troublemakers by the Order — and like Stephen, they knew a lot about how the clan handled its money. Luke and Scott often visited the home of one of their aunts, Rachel Young. Everyone in the Order knew that she controlled the purse strings for the operation — but few were aware that she was sitting on a hidden stash of silver. "Only the inner circle knew the hoard even existed," says Christian Kingston, a former Order member. "You had to be, like, a son of the prophet to know where it was."
On February 26th, 2009, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office got a call of suspicious activity in the foothills above the city. Two teenage boys had been spotted entering Rachel Young's home. They had sped off in a Honda sedan. When Rachel Young, a stern and humorless woman, got home, she discovered that several crates of silver in her basement had been pried open — whoever had robbed the place had clearly been in a hurry and had left with only a small fraction of her silver. She called her sister-in-law Patty Kingston, who lived across town. "You better check on your gold," Young told her.
As the first of Paul Kingston's many wives, Patty enjoyed a privileged role in the Order — including access to vast wealth. Hanging up the phone, she rushed to her closet. To her horror, all that remained was a ring of dust, marking the place where a chest of gold coins had once stood.
In the meantime, the police were closing in on the missing silver. A sheriff's deputy traced the license plate of the Honda to a run-down house in a working-class suburb south of the city. Pulling up, he noticed the getaway car parked in front of the house. As he talked to the woman who lived there, Luke Brown came out of the house, and his brother Scott soon joined him.
At first, the two boys denied any involvement in the break-in at Young's house. But the more the deputy pressed, the more their stories didn't add up. It didn't take long for them to break down and confess that they had robbed their aunt. The deputy opened the trunk of the Honda, where he found two duffel bags stuffed with silver. After the boys were taken into custody, one of their first calls was to Stephen. "We're fucked," they told their cousin.
One crime had been solved — but the chest of gold stolen from Patty Kingston's closet remained a mystery. The deputy heard the Brown boys knew who stole the gold — but suddenly, without explanation, they and everyone in the clan clammed up. "Paul was upset any of this had been reported at all," says a former member close to the boys. "The Order stays as far away as possible from police, and this was like inviting them in your front door."
With its vast wealth suddenly exposed to public view, the clan moved quickly to hush up the scandal. The Brown boys, charged with felony counts of burglary, wrote a letter to their aunt apologizing for stealing the silver in her house. She, in turn, wrote a letter to the judge on their behalf, and the case was settled without a trial. The boys were sentenced to two years of probation and taken back into the Order. Luke Brown now insists that he and his brother simply borrowed the silver, and planned to return it to their aunt later. "It wasn't like we thought about it a lot. It was a total spur of the moment thing," Brown says. "I love the Order. It's who I am."
To keep the police from prying into the matter any further, the clan also hired a private investigator to track down the missing gold. Within the clan, the pieces started to add up. The theft of the silver bars from Rachel Young's basement, they concluded, had been a copycat crime. In all likelihood, Stephen and his brothers had stolen the gold from Patty Kingston first — and then the Brown boys, in an effort to emulate their cousin's rebellious acts, had robbed their aunt weeks or even months later. Former Order members remain convinced the Knights stole the gold. "They did it," says Christian Kingston. "Everyone knows it."
After the gold disappeared, the Knight brothers suddenly seemed to have a lot of money — especially for young men on their own in the world for the first time. Unable to visit his mother, Stephen would leave a $100 bill in her mailbox or, with his brothers, buy her new furniture. "The Knight brothers were driving new trucks, and so were their friends," says Levi Kingston. "Some people say they funneled the money through Mexico. Others say they buried it out in the desert and are slowly cashing it out. If I had done it, the Order probably would have killed me. But because they were the sons of the prophet, they got away with it."
Stephen vehemently denies that he or his brothers had anything to do with the heist. "I honestly didn't even know there was any gold until they accused me of taking it," he says. These days Stephen works on a cattle ranch near the Idaho border, just down the road from where he grew up. It's a quiet, haunting place, with massive hayfields that stretch to the horizon. His arms are sunburned and his hands calloused from long days moving the irrigation pipes that water the fields. "Look around," Stephen says. "Do you think if I took $5 million in gold, I'd be working out here?"
In the months after the robbery, Stephen couldn't shake the feeling he was being watched. Mysterious cars followed his girlfriend, and he once came home to find that someone had rifled through his drawers. Then one night, a clan member called and told him that the Order planned to kill him. Terrified, he went out and bought a stash of guns to arm himself, just in case his family tried to gun him down.
Now, two years later, Stephen still sleeps with a gun near his bed. But the constant fear has subsided. "If they kill me, they kill me," he says. "I've lived a good life." Sometimes, lying in bed at night, he thinks of his brother who died not far from here, and the rest of his siblings who remain in the Order. He thinks about his mom, and wonders if she misses him. Every now and then, as he's driving around the ranch, his phone will ring. Fishing it out of his jeans, he'll recognize the number. It's his father, the prophet, calling to coax his wayward son back into the fold.
"Come back," his dad will say. "You could be such an asset to the Order."
Stephen hangs up and drives home in silence. He is not ready to forgive his father. But he hopes that one day his family will be able to forgive him for leaving them behind.