AS proposals go, it wasn’t exactly hearts and flowers. “I called Tom,” recalls June Johnson, “and I told him, ‘Come get me – I want to marry you’.”
The Tom in question is Tom Green, the man at the centre of America’s first polygamy trial for 50 years.
He has five wives, four ex-wives and 29 children… with another due last night.
Tom must have something – stamina for a start – but he’s no oil painting. He’s 52, paunchy, with thick glasses, thin hair and a red beard which is going grey.
None of which matters the slightest to June. Nor does his unconventional lifestyle. When she asked him to marry her, he was already married to one of her sisters – and her 15-year-old daughter. And just for good measure he went on to marry another of her daughters, aged only 14.
Last night Green was facing up to 20 years in jail after being convicted of bigamy, polygamy and failure to provide child support.
He branded the verdict “lousy” and accused prosecutor David Leavitt of being “a hell of a liar”.
Amazingly, all but one of Green’s wives and ex-wives are on his side – including June.
“I still care about him,” she says. “I think he is a great guy. We are just better off not married to each other.”
June, who is now single, even lives next door to Tom and his brood. And she has no qualms about the fact he married her daughters, LeeAnn and Shirley.
“Shirley was not a problem,” says June. “It was harder when LeeAnn married him. She was only 14 and Tom and I tried really hard to get her NOT to marry him.
“But she was adamant. She was in love with him. How do you stop that?”
At 50, June and sister Beth, 59 – who has also left Tom – are old enough to be the mothers of all the other wives.
June says: “Beth and I were out of place because the other wives are all between 24 and 31. They get on well, but Beth and I were outsiders.”
Although illegal and now frowned upon by Mormon leaders – who excommunicate polygamists – the practice has always been tolerated in Utah.
An estimated 30,000 polygamists live in the state, mostly in remote desert communities. Apart from one raid in 1953, the authorities, who are still mainly Mormon, usually prefer a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The authorities were only goaded into action when Tom took his wives on to the Jerry Springer show and other chat shows to boast about their lifestyle.
But polygamy’s roots go deep in Utah – 17 potential jurors were disqualified because they approved of the practice.
Tom’s five wives and their families live at Greenhaven, their exotic name for a ramshackle jumble of mobile homes and caravans in Snake Valley, 250 miles from anywhere in Utah’s Western desert.
From one of the cabins they run a business selling magazine subscriptions. But the welfare system feeds and clothes the 25 youngsters, aged from two to 14, who currently live with him.
The women do not believe in make-up and wear clothes in the style of the mid-1800s pioneers. They are all avid crocheters, making ornate shawls and cardigans while they waited to see what would happen to their husband.
The “Chief Wife” is June’s niece Linda, 28. Her most important duty is keeping the “Little Blue Book” – a sex rota that decides who will climb into Tom’s bed on which night. He only sleeps with one wife at a time.
June’s daughter LeeAnn says the women, who call each other “sister-wives”, are in control of everything
“We rotate sex to eliminate any problems or jealousy,” she explains. “If one of the sister-wives says that’s not a good time for her, Linda reschedules it.” What happens if Tom gets tired? She grins. “That never happens.” And she adds: “It doesn’t bother any of us that Tom is making love to our sister-wives. I believe all men are automatically polygamous, it is just that some dare not have more than one wife.
“Of course, we sister-wives like to think we are good in bed. So there is some competition amongst us to please Tom more than the others.
“There may even be sexual comparisons and maybe some of the wives ask Tom if they are better than the others. But Tom would never make that sort of comparison with any of us. Whatever he thinks, he keeps it to himself.”
Tom says: “All my wives are fantastic lovers!”
Like her mother, LeeAnn sees no conflict in the fact that she and her sister are married to their former stepfather. “It is no big deal,” she says. “Mum is a wonderful woman.”
Tom organises the family according to strict rules. He lives in his own trailer, which the wives visit to sleep with him.
Since 1986, they have organised “teams” of children – A, B, C, D and E – purposely born close together so they have friends the same age.
They all study, play, eat, bathe and worship together. Chief Wife Linda lives with the A-team of the eldest children in one trailer home. LeeAnn and Hannah share a second with the B and C teams, and Cari and Shirley have D and E. They switch periodically.
LeeAnn and Hannah are the cooks, although other wives take a hand. Adults eat first, and teams of children file in after them. It’s the same on bath nights. There is a strict, three-baths-a-week schedule.
The routine seems as rigorous as a boot camp…but the wives don’t for a moment believe it is weighted in favour of Tom.
June says: “All this stuff about women in bondage is nonsense. The women call the shots in a polygamous marriage – at least in the kind Tom believes in. He is a really good man.
“We are Fundamentalist Mormons and the Book Of Mormon says a husband does not have the right to divorce a wife. But she can do that to him. He cannot turn a woman down either. If she wants to be his wife and obey his rules and be in his family, he cannot say no…no matter how ugly she might be.”
June, 50, has been married twice, both times to polygamous husbands. She has 10 children, aged eight to 33, four of them by Tom. “I am not married now, but I still believe in the principle of polygamy,” she says.
“I first met Tom when my sister Beth was dating him. I was then one of Jessie Beagley’s five wives, but that marriage was on the way out.
“My older sister was also married to Jessie and was always bossing me. I thought I had a man in Jessie, but I married a wimp. And that doesn’t work in a plural marriage.
“The man has to be fair to all his wives but my sister didn’t let him be a husband to me as well as to her. Women are not going to take orders from another woman. So when she told me she was the boss, I said, ‘Okay – I want a divorce’.
“Jessie would never stick up for me, so I said, ‘kiss my ***** goodbye, I will get someone who cares for me’. That’s when I called Tom.” And she adds: “Tom did care about me for a long time. Our problem eventually was that we clashed.”
Now this case is over Tom faces a second trial on a statutory rape charge because, prosecutors claim, he had sex with Chief Wife Linda when she was only 13 (the age of consent in Utah was then 14). But Linda, now a 28-year-old mother of six, with another on the way, claims: “It’s rubbish. Would I have stayed with Tom for 15 years if he’d raped me? We’re in love. He’s a wonderful man.”
This case may just seem a bizarre slice of American life. But many believe liberation for thousands of Mormon women depends on its result. “They are taught from the cradle that they HAVE to be polygamists,” says Vicky Prunty of an organisation which aims to rescue the wives.
“They have lived sheltered lives in closed communities and know no better.”
THIS IS YOUR WIFE
LYNDA Penman. Divorced Tom in 1984 when he was seeing Beth Cook. Committed suicide, aged 42, in 1994 after being found guilty of embezzling the company where she worked.
BETH Cook, 59. Mother of the now-Chief Wife, Linda Kunz, and sister of June Johnson. Divorced him five years ago.
LINDA Kunz, 28. Six children, another on way. Had her first child by Tom at 14. Divorced him three years later to avoid bigamy charges, but never left his bed. Now Chief Wife.
SHIRLEY Beagley, 30. Seven children, one dead. Married Tom at 15. Still married to him
JUNE Johnson, 50. Mother of 10, four of them Tom’s. Married him for nine years after divorcing “wimpy” first husband. Divorced him five years ago.
LEEANN Beagley, 25. Shirley’s sister. Four children, expecting fifth any day. Married Tom at 15. Divorced him a year later because of clampdown on bigamy but still living with him.
ALLISON Ryan, 27. Married Tom at 16 but left him after six weeks. She is the only hostile wife and alleged child abuse at a preliminary hearing, but was not called for last week’s trial.
CARI Bjorkman, 24. Three children, expecting a fourth. Married at 15.
CARI’S sister, Hannah, 23. Two children, a third due. Married at 14. Divorced him to avoid bigamy charges but still living with him.
DESERT HOME: The camp where June (inset) lived with Tom and his wives; HUSBAND TOM 9 wives and 29 children; LINDA KUNZ Chief wife and June’s niece; SHIRLEY BEAGLEY June’s daughter and wife No.4; JUNE JOHNSON Mum of Shirley and Leeann – was wife No.5; LEEANN BEAGLEY June’s daughter and wife No.6; CARI BJORKMAN Sister of Hannah and wife No.8; HANNAH BJORKMAN Sister of Cari and wife No.9; PREGNANT: Wife LeeAnn