GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. —A woman who says she was pushed to marry her cousin when she was a teenager is now trying to raise awareness about the marriage laws in Colorado.
Shanell DeRieux was born and raised in a polygamist group.
“I got married to a cousin at 18 years old,” DeRieux told KDVR.
On July 3, 2008, DeRieux and two of her younger half-sisters drove to Grand Junction with their cousins and parents to become legally married.
“Out of me and my sisters, I was the only one who was 18. The other two were 16,” DeRieux said. The grooms were 22.
They all belonged to the Davis County Cooperative Society also known as the Kingston Group. They left their homes in the Salt Lake area and crossed the border into Colorado to marry their cousins at the Mesa County Courthouse.
“We took a trip in a 15-passenger van. We took a trip to get married,” DeRieux said.
It’s illegal to marry a cousin in Utah unless one is over the age of child bearing years or 55 years of age. Colorado is one of 19 states where it is legal to marry one’s first cousin.
“We walked into the courthouse, filled out the paperwork and basically walked out with our marriage licenses,” said DeRieux, who said she is a former member of the sect.
Colorado does not require an official ceremony to marry.
DeRieux’s father, John Kingston, signed as a witness to the weddings. Three of his wives, mothers to the newlyweds, also made the trip. The parents of the 16-year-olds filled out papers for the marriage licenses.
“I didn’t choose to get married, I was pushed,” DeRieux told KDVR last month.
DeRieux now stars with two of her sisters in “Escaping Polygamy” on Lifetime network. She left her cousin who became her husband and has since happily re-married.
“I personally don’t think first cousins should be married,” DeRieux said.
The former Davis County Cooperative Society member is speaking out to raise awareness.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t even tell you how many of my cousins have married cousins,” DeRieux said.
She said her wedding day marked the beginning of an abusive relationship.
“The reason they pursue a license is to make it harder, specifically, to leave.” DeRieux said.
The former polygamist told KDVR the Kingston Group uses marriage to control women in the society. DeRieux explained that men can go outside the group to marry, but women cannot.
KDVR wanted to know how often Utah teens travel to Mesa County to marry, so the station reviewed hundreds of marriage licenses and consulted with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Actual statistics of cousin marriages are not available since the state does not track marriages between cousins nor release marriage documents.
Marriage applications only ask if couples are related and there are no consequences for lying since marrying your first cousin is legal in Colorado.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle has covered polygamy for five years and has researched teen marriage between Utah couples in Colorado.
“When you go through the marriage records enough, you see some common last names,” Carlisle said.
KDVR found seven marriage licenses between April 2018 and thus far this year between couples from the Salt Lake area.
Carlisle also identified several cousin marriages taking place in Colorado over the last 20 years.
“I was a little surprised not just cousin marriage is still legal in Colorado, but that it has created a small industry of people traveling to Colorado,” Carlisle said.
Carlisle told us even though he’s uncovered several cousin marriages, he found nothing illegal.
“At least a half-dozen times a year, there are kids traveling to Grand Junction, Colorado to marry their cousins,” Carlisle said.
Colorado is the closest state to Utah that allows cousin marriages.
KDVRT tried reaching out to the Kingston Group without success.
The sect’s spokesman Kent Johnson had previously told The Salt Lake Tribune, “The DCCS reaffirms that each individual has their free agency to choose whom and when they will marry. They should refrain from this decision until they can be well-informed to make a mature and thoughtful decision before entering into marriage.”
Long-time Mesa County Clerk and current treasurer Sheila Reiner said they uphold the state statue.
“We are following the law. It doesn’t mean we are condoning anything,” Reiner said.
Reiner also doesn’t think government can tell people who they can and cannot love.
“I think we live in a free country,” Reiner said,
Colorado lawmakers did not debate cousin marriages, but they did recently approve changes to teen marriage laws. Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign legislation banning marriage under the age of 15. The bill also requires a judge’s approval for marriage of 16- and 17-year-old teenagers.
Utah lawmakers raised the state’s minimum marriage age to 16 in March.
“Escaping Polygamy” follows its stars, DeRieux, Andrea Brewer and Jessica Christensen, as they help rescue members of fundamentalist Mormon sects in Utah and elsewhere.