He Makes A Village

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Tom Green points to the pictures of his 26 children and five wives above the kitchen table and says, "That is my brag wall." At 52, Green is not ready to stop bragging. Three more children are on the way. A self-proclaimed "fundamentalist Mormon," Green lives with his extensive family in the remote desert of western Utah. He believes he is carrying out God's will with his polygamous lifestyle.

David Leavitt, prosecuting attorney of local Juab County, has a different view. He thinks "the practice of polygamy hurts society," and is taking Green to court on four counts of bigamy next week. He has also charged Green with child rape and criminal nonsupport of one of his children, charges that will be dealt with separately. Green's marital record is certainly unusual. One of his wives, Linda, was 13 when he impregnated her; she is the subject of the child-rape charge. The other four wives are two pairs of sisters. Green has also been married in the past to two of his wives' mothers. The wives help Green with his job telemarketing magazine subscriptions.

Green's case has divided Utah, where polygamy, although banned a century ago by both the state and its dominant religious group, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is nonetheless still widely practiced. The last bigamy trial was held in the 1950s, and today an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people live in polygamous households in Utah. But Green's wives were particularly young when he married them--14 to 16. And unlike most polygamists, who live discreetly, Green has been vocal in his support of plural marriage. An interview he gave in 1999 to NBC's Dateline spurred Leavitt to begin the investigation that led to the filing of charges.

Green's critics accuse him of exploiting his wives. "The women were children when he married them and took them to bed," says Vicky Prunty, director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group made up mostly of former wives of polygamous marriages. "These girls were indoctrinated when they were very little--they didn't have any other choices."

But Green says his wives, all of whom come from polygamous families, are just following the original tradition of Mormonism. Says he: "Mormons say polygamy is immoral and wrong, but their church was founded by polygamists. That is hypocrisy."

As they go about their daily chores, cooking and cleaning for the equivalent of five basketball teams' worth of children, Green's wives appear to have no regrets at marrying so young. "I feel I gained. It is better than being a teenager hanging out in a mall or getting pregnant without a husband," says Hannah, 23.

Green was born in Salt Lake City. He was brought up a Mormon, and did two years of missionary work for the church in Indiana and Michigan before returning to Utah to study church history. "It was then I saw polygamy had not been abandoned; it just went underground," he says. For proclaiming his belief in polygamy, Green underwent a four-hour excommunication trial in 1980. "For them it was a ticket to hell," Green says. "I saw it as a graduation."

Evicted from a trailer park in Salt Lake City for being polygamous, Green moved to the Snake Valley desert in 1995. His family lives in a complex of battered trailers surrounded by wrecked cars and used tires. It is 100 miles to the nearest hospital or grocery store and 55 miles to the nearest blacktop road. At the local school, in Partoun, 80% of the children come from polygamous families. Green's 25 children--one boy died in a house fire in 1997--are between 2 1/2 and 14 years old. For study and play they are divided into five teams, A to E. "And the F team is well under way," says Green, grinning. The wives divide up duties according to a weekly roster. One wife has to cook all day to feed the 31 family members. Linda, 28, is the senior wife and has charge of scheduling which wife goes over to spend the night in Green's trailer, set a little apart from the others.

The publicity comes at an awkward time as the state gears up for next winter's Olympics, to be held in Salt Lake City. Some fear the polygamy trial could tarnish Utah's name internationally. Green is not above poking fun at the state's dilemma. "We even thought we would set up a polygamy booth at the airport and sell T shirts with pictures of my wives inside the five Olympic rings."

Green is deliberately provocative. To persuade the jury that he has a loving family, he intends to bring his entire clan into court. With feelings running high in the case, Green needs all the support he can get.