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FOX 13 Investigates: Public school run by polygamous Kingston group continues appointing family members

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Posted at 9:46 PM, May 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-10 22:16:19-04

FOX 13 News has learned that a public charter school run by leaders within the polygamous Kingston group continues to defy the state by appointing family members to handle millions of taxpayer dollars.

Vanguard Academy in West Valley City has been responding to concerns about its ties to the Kingston group, also known as the Davis County Cooperative Society, or “the Order,” since December 2020 — when a FOX 13 News investigation revealed a lack of diversity and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on Kingston-affiliated businesses.

READ: Public school with ties to polygamous sect is 100% white

Some of the school’s expenditures show businesses also involved in the Kingston’s half-billion dollar Washakie Renewable Energy fraud case, which sent Isaiah Kingston and Jacob Kingston to prison.

Last June, the Utah State Charter School Board (SCSB) placed Vanguard Academy in West Valley City on “warning status.” Some members of the board credited FOX 13 News for exposing concerns related to Vanguard Academy’s spending.

“We need to be transparent,” said SCSB Vice Chair Bryan Bowles. “These are public dollars.”

READ: Utah public school with ties to polygamous sect placed on 'warning' status

Despite SCSB involvement, public records show the payments to these businesses did not stop in 2021 or 2022.

“I’m hoping that we just stop paying (Vanguard Academy) millions of dollars a year to run a whites-only charter school, for only the children of their own cult,” said Brooke Anderson, an analyst who researches public school data. "We clearly have a school being run by a local cult."

READ: Non-profit run by polygamous Kingston group faces tax questions and accusations

“We had to keep polygamy a secret. You’re never supposed to talk about the Order,” explained Amanda Rae, a former member of the Kingston family. “We have so much knowledge now on this Kingston group. Why are we still allowing them to take our public funds?”

Shanell DeRieux is not scared to talk about the “secrets” surrounding her family. She left more than ten years ago but is still worried about her siblings who attend Vanguard Academy.

DeRieux explained how the Kingston group teaches its members to take as much money as they can from the government, also known as “bleeding the beast.”

She addressed the SCSB in April, asking for the state to finally hold Vanguard Academy accountable.

The state has not taken any meaningful action since placing the school on “warning status” approximately one year ago.

“Why has it taken so long?” DeRieux asked. “Utah should get in there and fix it. It’s Utah’s problem. Vanguard is clearly not fixing its problem.”

Utah admits it has struggled to hold Vanguard Academy accountable

The state’s review of Vanguard Academy found all seven of the school's board members had social or financial ties to the Kingston group. As such, the SCSB determined it is difficult for leaders within the school to be impartial when voting on the school’s spending habits.

In March, Vanguard Academy promised to make changes by appointing new leadership able to vote on the school’s spending without a conflict.

READ: Public school with ties to polygamous sect promises change to avoid further discipline

“They need to resolve those conflicts of interest,” explained Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the SCSB. “It’s a problem if those individuals are making decisions about companies who are also part of the cooperative.”

When asked why the school has still been allowed to spend taxpayer money on Kingston-affiliated businesses for the past 17 months, Lambert said that remains part of the state’s review of the situation.

“Normally what we ask the board to do is revote on those contracts with non-conflicted board members,” Lambert said. “It’s not appropriate for us to necessarily go in and run a school. In fact, we can’t by law do that.”

Rae and DeRieux offered different perspectives on whether the school should be closed completely.

“I don’t think it should be shut down,” DeRieux said, “but it definitely, definitely needs to be altered.”

"(They taught us) we are above the law. The laws of the Lord are above the laws of the land,” Rae said. “It’s kind of obvious that Vanguard is not willing to cooperate with the rules. I don’t know that they should still be allowed to be a school.”

In April, the SCSB debated whether it would be appropriate to start removing members of Vanguard Academy’s board. They ultimately decided to wait until a future meeting, if necessary.

“We have the ability to take a number of actions. We can remove a director. We can remove board members. We can appoint members. We can even close a school,” Lambert said. “But there’s also a process that must take place before then.”

Vanguard Academy replaces director Suzanne Owen with her brother-in-law, Charles Reynolds

In addition to appointing new board members, Vanguard Academy also promised to hire a new director.

“The board has also selected and hired a new non-conflicted director that will assume those responsibilities effective immediately,” said Vanguard Academy treasurer Grace Mitchell. “We feel like these measures will give the State Charter (School) Board the reassurance that it needs that any financial items will be transparent and non-conflicted.”

Vanguard Academy’s previous director, Suzanne Owen, has never been forthcoming about her involvement in the Kingston group.

“Well, I’ve heard of them,” Owen said, in an interview with FOX 13 News in December 2020.

“But you’re not familiar with it?” asked FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets.

“No,” Owen said. “Well, like I say, this is a public charter school.”

Sources within the Kingston group later confirmed Owen is married to Hyrum Kingston, the leader’s brother.

Even though Vanguard Academy promised the school’s new director would have no conflicts of interest, a man named Charles Reynolds was chosen to replace Owen.

FOX 13 News has learned Reynolds is married to Owens’ sister. He is another known member of the Kingston group.

“I know he’s part of the polygamous group. I know who his parents are. I worked with him at the (Co-Op Mine) for multiple years,” DeRieux said. “Charles was one of the leaders at the coal mine.”

DeRieux shared photos of Reynolds at the mine posing alongside Paul Kingston, the group’s leader and “prophet.”

Rae said she was surprised Vanguard Academy would try to downplay Reynolds’ status as a Kingston insider.

“He’s going to do what he has to do to protect the Order,” Rae said.

Reynolds declined an interview with FOX 13 News at a recent Vanguard Academy board meeting. He said he felt his ties to the Kington group and his marriage to the previous director’s sister are not conflicts of interest.

“Ask questions. Keep asking questions,” DeRieux said. “The more they’re put in the spotlight, inevitably the truth will come out.”

Joshua Peterson

In April, Vanguard Academy accepted the resignation of board member David Kingston. He stated he felt it was the best thing to do, in wake of the school’s warning status with the SCSB.

The board unanimously voted to appoint Joshua Peterson as its new vice chair.

Peterson was one of Vanguard Academy’s founding board members in 2014.

He’s also a known member of the Kingston group.

“His two older brothers were my Sunday school teachers at different times, and he also worked at the mine when I was working at the mine,” DeRieux said. “He’s always been part of the Order.”

“So, again, for them to say – We hired new people, and they have no conflicts, and they’re not part of the group – that's not true?” asked FOX 13 News investigative reporter Adam Herbets.

“Oh, absolutely not true,” DeRieux responded. “His loyalties will be to the Order. His loyalties will lie with the group. They’re specifically selecting individuals who will be loyal to them.”

Daniel Jessop

So far, Vanguard Academy has chosen not to replace the six other members of its board.

Instead, the school voted to amend its charter – allowing for the appointment of two additional board members.

“I’ve known Joshua Peterson in the past,” Reynolds said. “The other two members, I actually don’t have an acquaintance with them.”

One of the new board members is Daniel Jessop. Sources say he he grew up in a Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint (FLDS) household, not in the Kingston family.

However, past and present members of the Order confirmed Jessop has two sisters who married into the Kingston family.

One of Jessop’s sisters, Kathleen Kingston, is married to Vanguard Academy board member Scott Kingston.

“Of course that’s a conflict of interest. That’s his brother-in-law,” DeRieux said. “I remember when Kathleen and Ellie both got married because I remember sitting in church, seeing new people, and being like, ‘Who are they? I don’t recognize them?’ and my mom letting me know, ‘Well, they’re actually from another polygamous group.’”

“I think it 100 percent is a conflict, because there’s a reason why they are only wanting to hire people who are going to support their polygamous teachings in the group,” Rae said.

Benjamin Robinson

In April, Vanguard Academy voted unanimously to approve Benjamin Robinson as its newest board member.

Past and present members of the Kingston group have told FOX 13 News they don’t know who Robinson is. He is the ony board member listed on the Vanguard Academy website without a photo.

Even if Robinson is an outsider, he will be heavily outnumbered by members of the Kingston family on the Vanguard Academy board.

“Why did they choose him, and how did they find him?” DeRieux questioned. “If there is a Benjamin Robinson in the Order, I don’t know about it.”

Christian Sandoval

In February, Vanguard Academy voted unanimously to approve Christian Sandoval as its newest board member.

The board said Sandoval was chosen because of his focus on developing leadership skills and his ability to work with kids. He was a senior training officer in the military. He owns a sports training gym in South Jordan.

Sandoval is black, has tattoos, and is not a member of the Kingston group. His only ties to the group were having met some members at the gym, which the SCSB confirmed would not have been a conflict of interest.

Ultimately, Sandoval said he decided not to pursue the position after further researching the school.

Members of the SCSB said they were disappointed to hear of Sandoval’s hesitancy.

“He would have been a really good addition,” DeRieux said. “I was taught the people of other colors, they’re not pure, and they’re dirty... Order kids aren’t used to being around members of different ethnicities.”

Investigation continues

Lambert said it has been difficult for government employees to determine who is related within the Kingston group, even though FOX 13 News has been able to.

They’re hoping people with more information can help the SCSB as it continues to investigate.

“We’re not investigators that are digging through different records. We just want to be able to assure the public that public funds are being appropriately used,” Lambert said. “If we do find that the school is misrepresenting something, then we would love to have that discussion with them to ascertain why.”

Rae and DeRieux said they would be happy to help, if the SCSB is serious about its commitment to learning more about the Kingston family.

“Not only would I be willing, I would actually love to sit down with some of the school board members and answer any questions,” DeRieux said. “If I saw faces or names, I would be able to tell you instantly who does not belong in the Order.”

“I hope that they’re not just saying that they’re willing (to investigate),” Rae said. “I hope they actually are willing, because if you are willing to actually learn about it, you can find out who these people are... This isn’t just another public school. This is a Kingston-ran public school, so you can’t take the same approach that you take with these other schools. You need to have people who know this stuff.”