Blowing the whistle at 23: Escaping polygamy and the Kingston clan

By Dani Levy

/ CBS News

Whistleblower from polygamous sect speaks out

Dani Levy is an associate producer for the CBS series, "Whistleblower." The episode "Polygamy, Power and Profits: The Case Against the Kingstons," airs Friday, May 31 at 8/7c on CBS.

Picture this: You're 23 years old, married to your college sweetheart and raising two kids. Then, you find out that your cousins, members of the polygamous cult you escaped from, allegedly tried to pay an "enforcer" to do something to you — something dangerous. The specifics are unclear, but according to the government, their intent was to intimidate and cause you harm.

"I didn't ever think that there would be physical threats until… I saw things that were pointing to me and [my husband], that they were paying somebody off to do something to us."

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If it sounds far-fetched, I understand. I was in disbelief when I first heard it, too. But that's what happened to Mary Nelson and her husband Bryan after they blew the whistle on her cousins for allegedly ripping off $511 million from the government in a fraudulent tax credit scheme. She told her story to me and my colleagues in an interview for CBS's series "Whistleblower."

Bryan and Mary Nelson Mary Nelson

Knowing she may have been in danger, does she regret blowing the whistle? Not at all.

"These people are not who they say they are," Mary said, referring to the Kingston clan, also known as The Order — the sect to which her family belongs. She, like some members of law enforcement, calls them an "organized crime family."

"It's supposedly God's kingdom here on Earth," she told "Whistleblower" host Judge Alex Ferrer. Mary fled The Order in 2013 with Bryan's help, and proceeded to tell the FBI and IRS about what she calls widespread fraud encouraged by the group's leaders. Her information led to that $511 million indictment against her cousins.

I met Mary a handful of times and was impressed with her determination and fortitude. She wants life to get better for the siblings she left behind. I'm only a few months older than she is and often wonder if I'd have had the strength to leave the only family I ever knew. But that's just who Mary is — she believes their way of life is wrong.

The Kingstons are a Mormon splinter group, founded in the 1930s by Mary's great-uncle Elden. They maintain a secretive but powerful presence in Utah's Salt Lake Valley, and their estimated 7,500 members can be found in Colorado and California as well. But, according to Mary, they're more than religious fundamentalists. She says they're a business empire that brainwashes its members by depriving them of access to the rest of society.

"I feel like my mind is like an onion. The longer I am away from The Order and the longer that I'm in a free world, it's peeling back layers," Mary said. "I didn't think it was ever possible for me to be outside of The Order and to be an outsider. I didn't understand how people lived. I didn't understand how people had houses — anything."

The Order tries to provide "everything that you could ever need to interact in your daily life," including schools, grocery stores, hardware stores, and an ever-powerful central bank. They also "didn't let us really interact with the outside world because they were scared that we would see behind all their lies. We would see the real truth, and we would see how things really work in the world."

"Some people think, well, I want to just leave. But they don't have anything. They have five, six kids. They don't have a house," Mary said. "And they threaten you and say, if you leave, we're going to take all your kids, and we're going to take your house, and we're going to take your car, and you don't have anything."

Mary says that's because The Order owns everything — the homes, the cars, and the money that you make. After Mary left, she says her parents declined to turn over the $17,000 she earned from years of working in the group's bank — they called it a wedding present that she would have received had she married the person they wanted for her.

The group derides the "evil forces of the world" like feminism and enforces a law of "one above another," placing women at the mercy of their husbands and girls at the mercy of their fathers. Mary says her father encouraged her to start thinking about marriage when she was just 13, suggesting potential husbands more than twice her age. When Mary's parents learned of her relationship with Bryan four years later, Mary says they demanded she wed her 17-year-old cousin, who was already married with a baby on the way.

"I just started crying," Mary said. My dad says, 'Isn't this what you want? Don't you want to have kids in The Order?' I said I don't know what I want. And he is like, 'You do know what you want.'"

And if she didn't love the person they expected her to marry? Mary says The Order tells young girls, "You should love that person just because you know that that's what the Heavenly Father wants you to do."

Mary says it's this kind of manipulation and brainwashing that really bothers her. Her mother, the fifth of her father's 18 wives and his half-sister, was born into the group. While her father bought dinner or groceries on occasion, it was largely up to her mother to provide for her 15 siblings.

"The women grow up knowing that's their responsibility."

Her father works, but like her mother, gives his earnings to the central bank. Leaders claim the money is meant to help build God's Kingdom here on earth, but Mary doesn't agree.

Her dad — one of the group's leaders — "has access to all the money that he wants," she said. "He'll draw out a few thousand dollars a week, maybe even more, and he'll buy the newest Apple products. He'll buy computers and all kinds of electronics. And people out there are struggling to put food on their table."

Meanwhile, Mary says the leaders encourage women to use their children to steal money from the government, by filing fraudulent tax returns or applications for collegiate financial aid and welfare. The leaders expect them to turn over this "income" to the business office, where they may never see a penny of it again.

When Ferrer asked if the women realize they're being controlled and manipulated, Mary said they were clueless.

"They don't have any idea. That's the way they were taught," she added. "They were you were taught from a very, very young age that you fit in with your husband. You fit in with your dad. You do exactly what they say. You don't question it because if you do, you're going against the Lord's work."

First published on May 31, 2019 / 3:38 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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