Man vs. State

A fatal showdown with compulsory schooling


It had been subfreezing and usually subzero for weeks on end in the Kamas Valley of northern Utah. Almost every night had brought another snowstorm to the tiny mountain town of Marion. Last night was no exception, and the snow had drifted deep in the farming community nestled high between the peaks of the High Uintas to the east and the Wasatch Mountains to the west.

At noon, John Singer pushed open the door of the 19th-century-style cabin that he had built himself. He proceeded down the snow-covered lane to the mailbox. In a setting as sparsely populated as any left in America, surrounded on all sides by rugged terrain and wilderness areas, and protected by the intense mountain winter, one would think that John Singer would have been alone. But the snowmobile tracks surrounding his small farm on all sides attested to the fact that he wasn't.

The snowmobiles had been the most recent calling card of the continuous surveillance of the Singer family by law enforcement officers of Summit County and of the state of Utah. They had been there many times before with helicopters, low-flying aircraft, and masked men staring for hours through binoculars from unmarked patrol cars.

It was January 18, and John Singer, a small, wiry man of 47, who spoke with a German accent, had not left the 2½-acre mountain farm in almost a year. None of the 13 members of the Singer family had left. It seemed to him that he was under siege. And he was.

As John approached the mailbox at the end of the lane where a chained gate served to separate the Singer farm from the rest of the world, the roar of snowmobiles broke the silence. Sheriffs deputies and highway patrolmen, who had hidden behind neighboring houses, completely surrounded him.

Singer pulled his Colt automatic, loaded with a single round, from his coat. The ten lawmen had him desperately out-gunned. Five held revolvers and five held shotguns. They formed a circle around him.

"Halt. Police. Drop the gun."

John raised the Colt and drew a semicircle through the air.

A single blast from an officer's 12-gauge shotgun rang out. Singer fell bleeding into the snow.

Suddenly the porch of the small cabin was filled with armed family members, John's two wives and two of the children armed with rifles. A younger daughter was holding a bow and arrow.

"Drop your guns or someone might get hurt," one of the officers yelled. The wives and children complied—but someone was already hurt. Ten minutes later, John Singer was dead: the result of resisting a court order that he comply with state compulsory schooling laws.

This wasn't the only attack on the Singers. It was just the only successful one. Three months earlier, three officers in plain clothes had come to the Singer farm. Identifying themselves as reporters for the "L.A. Time," the three had grabbed John and forced him into a van.

Ten children and two women poured forth from the cabin and swarmed over the undercover agents, kicking and punching. John freed one hand and pulled a .38 automatic from his pocket.

"Let go or I'll shoot!" he shouted.

"We're police officers! Don't shoot!" yelled one of the "reporters."

"Get off my property. And if you ever try to do that again, I'll blow your head off," Singer warned. This had ended the "interview." The next attempt proved luckier for the law.


What was it about this man that had brought his five-year opposition to state education for his family to this fatal conclusion? Why was his defensive posture so dangerous to the police, prosecution, and educators who represented the State?

As the snow of the next winter storm covered the blood spots by the Singer mailbox, some especially disquieting facts were being uncovered in Salt Lake City, 25 miles away.

The police had taken John Singer's body to the State Medical Examiner's Office for autopsy. They took the seven children of John and Vickie (Singer's first wife) to the Salt Lake County Juvenile Detention Center. Vickie Singer was arrested for contempt of court (stemming from her refusal to cooperate with the public school system) and booted into the Salt Lake County Jail. The three children of Shirley Black (John's second wife of a polygamous marriage) were held for custody of their father, Dean Black.

The public and the media wanted to know how a man could be killed for refusing public education for his children and providing for their education himself. Utah State Public Safety Director Larry Lunnen promised a news conference to the news media after the autopsy. Summit County Sheriff Ron Robinson, who was responsible for enforcing law in the Singer case, also promised to be present.

Lunnen had masterminded the unsuccessful "interview" arrest attempt of Singer. Both Robinson and Lunnen are said to have planned the fatal arrest try. Lunnen had earlier planned an unbelievable arrest attempt involving an armed personnel carrier and gas bombs. That attempt was vetoed by Utah Gov. Scott Matheson.

The reporters waited hours for the news conference to begin. Finally, a secretary for the medical examiner emerged and read a three-line statement, announcing that there would be no news conference. The statement said that Singer's body arrived at 2:15 P.M., an autopsy was performed, and the cause of death was a shotgun wound.

Later is was discovered that the public safety director had slipped out of the back door of the office. Sheriff Robinson had hurriedly returned to his Summit County office.

What was it that these dedicated law enforcement officials were hiding? The autopsy report had been exceptionally brief. And what it didn't report was what friends and family of John Singer found when they viewed his body at the mortuary. John Singer had been shot in the back.

The Singer tragedy has thrust into the public consciousness an important question: Who ultimately has the right to direct children's learning experiences—the State, or the family and individual child? And it has forced a fundamental issue: To what extent can a person who has harmed no one be prosecuted or persecuted by law enforcement officials?


John Singer was born in New York in 1931. His father had come to America from Germany to raise money for the Nazi Party. His mother was a member of the Mormon Church. John spent the first 15 years of his life in Nazi Germany, where he was sent to S.S. training school (he was later expelled for making stink bombs) and was a member of the Hitler Youth Movement. By 1946 he had returned to New York and was baptized into the Mormon Church. Singer often cited his boyhood in Germany as the cause of his hatred of regimentation.

John moved to Summit County, Utah, in 1950. In 1963 he married his first wife, Vickie Lemmon. Her parents disliked John, 12 years Vickie's senior. Upon hearing of their engagement, her father, Grant Lemmon, remarked, "If you marry that son of a bitch, we'll never speak to you again." Vickie's parents and an aunt attempted to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital, but Vickie and John eloped, successfully thwarting the plans of unhappy relatives.

The Singers' lifestyle was dictated by John's belief that "we are headed into a new era of time. We are on the eve of a tremendous crisis, when it will be the survival of the fittest. The things that are happening in the world are merely warnings. People should heed these warnings as tests and prepare themselves to be self-sufficient when the disaster strikes."

The Singers' cabin was designed to help them overcome the "crisis." They had a large quantity of food in storage, kerosene lamps for light, and wood-burning stoves for heat, cooking, and hot water. Electricity was not a necessity. Of the seven Singer children, ages three to fourteen, four had been delivered at home by John.

John and Vickie Singer were excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 1972. They denied church president Joseph Fielding Smith as a prophet and revelator.


In March 1973 John Singer went to see the principal of South Summit Elementary School, Rex B. Walker. Singer provided a copy of Good Times in the City and asked Walker, "Do you see what your people are teaching in this school?"

He turned to a page depicting George Washington and Martin Luther King. "Do you know who that man is?" he queried in reference to Dr. King. "You have put him next to George Washington, making him an equal. He is not. That man is a descendant of the Canaanites and has the mark of Cain on him. He was backed by the Communists and was a traitor to his own people. These people were cursed to be servants."

The book's cover illustrated children of many races playing together. Singer complained that "by showing these people together, you teach that it is all right to associate together. Then, the first thing you know, they get to know each other. They could eventually intermarry. Then the disaster would strike because their children would have the blood of Cain in them. I'm not going to have my children taught these things."

Singer claimed to "have nothing against the black race. However, I think we should be separate. They should have equal rights, but with their own government in their own state."

"According to our religious beliefs, if you have Negro blood you can't reach the highest glory." So Satan, he claimed, is the force behind race mixing. "But my more urgent motive—the one people don't understand—is that I must prepare my children to survive the crisis that is coming in this world. And for this, a regular education is not enough."

John Singer removed all of his children from the Utah public school system on March 19, 1973. And thus began his fatal struggle against State education.


He told the Summit Country Board of Education:

Our society is deteriorating and our children are the fruits of this society. Look at them—vandalism, carousing, dope, venereal disease and pregnancies. I won't turn my children over to that. I've learned through gardening and all other works that you don't set out tender young plants and let the elements ravage them with all their force. You put up stakes and help the plants until they are strong enough to survive themselves. You don't send innocent children out into corruption.

In a free society, the responsibility for a child's education is in the hand of his parents, not the state. Without freedom, this is lost. Remember Hitler said, "Give me the youth and I have the nation."

This being free—I don't know why it is so deeply implanted in me. All my life, people have tried to put me under their thumb and I have suffered terribly. It has taught me to watch my liberties very carefully. I have learned my school lessons as far as liberty is concerned in the college of hard knocks.

All I am asking for now is freedom to educate my children according to the United States Constitution. I feel that your schools are too permissive. The teachers are too objective, while I prefer the subjective approach to religion and the essential skills of farming, homemaking, carpentry, and such. And I am convinced my children can work better at home because, with us, education is a continual, on-going process, not just an exercise for a few hours a day.

John Singer's objections to the state educational system and its curriculum and environment were several. The teaching of racial equality was the thing that seems to have tipped the scales against the public schools for John Singer. His racial attitudes, while not admirable, were not far from the attitudes of the great majority of Summit County, Utah, residents (over 90 percent Mormon).

Utah law provides that parents may remove children from school to be taught at home, provided they follow the same curriculum mandated by law and regulation for the schools. When faced with the prospect, Singer said, "This is not really important. My children are learning other things that are more valuable. Timothy is only nine, but he is building a cabin by himself, even cutting and fitting the logs. This takes math as well as carpentry skills. The girls are cooking, sewing and helping maintain the house. All of the children work in the vegetable gardens and care for the animals. They are learning all the time."


When school resumed in September, the Singer children remained on the family's mountain farm. Thus began legal proceedings against John and Vickie Singer for violation of compulsory attendance laws. When the Singers refused the school board's demand that they keep a roll and allow district testing, Singer explained, "That would invade my privacy and violate my constitutional rights and religious beliefs."

Judge Charles Bradford appointed Mr. Robert Orton as guardian for the children. Singer wrote to him saying, "You, Mr. Bradford, have placed me in a very peculiar situation, either to transgress the laws of my God and obey men's corrupt laws, or to obey my God's laws and defy men's corrupt laws. I, fearing God more than men, have chosen the latter."

Judge Kent Bachman of the Summit County Juvenile Court then ordered psychological testing for the family to help resolve the case. Dr. Victor Cline, clinical psychologist at the University of Utah, tested the children, but when he called to make an appointment to test the parents, Vickie Singer responded, "My husband told me to tell you that we would consent to be tested on the condition that the entire school board and Mr. [Superintendent] Erdington be tested along with us. Since they are the ones who turned us over to the Court, it is only fair that they be tested, too, to see if they are more capable than we to determine what is best for our children."

John Singer constructed a one-room schoolhouse on the farm and incorporated it as the High Uinta Academy. On November 1, 1977, the court determined the Singers to be in contempt, fined them $299, and sentenced them to 60 days in jail. The sentence would be lifted only if they submitted to state psychological testing.

They submitted to the testing. Dr. Cline's official evaluation stated, in part, "Vickie Singer is of sound mind, mentally competent, knows clearly what she is doing and is overall a remarkable, resourceful and adequate woman." Of John he stated, "There is absolutely nothing suggestive of pathology or mental illness in his makeup. In summary, they are above average in intelligence and emotional stability and soundness."

The results of the children's testing were, according to Dr. Cline, "shocking." They were 34 IQ points below their parents, which Cline attributed to isolation and inadequate learning experiences.


At this point, any astute observer must raise a number of questions. The limitations of standard tests applied to individuals of varying cultural backgrounds are now widely recognized. But this didn't phase the court. Then there is the question whether lawmakers or the professional education community know best what individual children "need to know" in order to be educated, or what they may need in the future. Yet their beliefs about these matters are translated into law—clearly a case of what Friedrich von Hayek has called "the pretense of knowledge." Thus is education made into a coercive experience, amounting to government mind control and destroying diversity in beliefs and lifestyles. It was that radical diversity for which the State and its representatives sought to punish the Singers.

They were given three options by the court: accept a tutor who would instruct at their home, enroll in a licensed private school, or enroll in a public school. "That puts us right back where we started," argued John Singer. "You can't become a law unto yourselves," the judge responded.

December 16, 1977, was established as John and Vickie Singer's trial date for charges of neglect and habitual truancy. They missed the hearing. They also refused to leave their farm to appear in court on March 14, 1978, and again on April 6. They were both cited for contempt.

Singer sent a letter to the court and the county prosecutor, citing a 1963 opinion from US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, which stated, "Attendance at the public schools has never been compulsory; parents remain morally and constitutionally free to choose the academic environment in which they wish their children to be educated." John commented later, "If I discuss this matter with court officers or school officials, I automatically acknowledge their guardianship over my children." Clearly, he refused to concede any legitimate authority of the State over his family's minds or private lives.


The Singer conflict was primarily over State education. A secondary issue at stake was the polygamous marriage of John Singer to Shirley Black on July 17, 1978, and the custody of the three Black children.

In October 1978, news of the polygamous relationship reached the courts and Shirley Black's husband, Dean Black. Mr. Black was awarded custody of the children by the court. Neither John Singer nor Shirley Black would permit the removal of the children from the Singer farm. In December Mr. Black's attorney moved that Sheriff Robinson be held in contempt of court for not serving outstanding warrants for contempt on Singer. Judge John Farr Larson, who was now presiding in the case, refused the motion and continued the order for Singer's arrest without a time limit.

The conflict for which the State was willing to risk a fatal confrontation was clearly compulsory schooling and not polygamy or child custody. Judge Larson made this clear in his first public statement after the shooting. "My action today is the outgrowth of ten months of involvement with the Singer family, during which time the court has been very patient and had hoped that Mr. Singer could resolve his differences with the education system in a different manner than which transpired today."

According to Summit County Attorney Robert Adkins, the officers had waited five or six months so that they could attempt arrest "without injuring anyone involved." This means that the law enforcement officials had been planning an ambush months before the court was aware that Shirley Black and her children were living in a cabin on the Singer farm.

In any other state, the primary charge would have been bigamy, but Utah has a peculiar history. Polygamy was practiced in Utah in conjunction with the Mormon religion from 1847 until statehood was granted in 1896. The federal government insisted that polygamy be prohibited by the state constitution before Utah would be admitted into the Union. At that time, armed federal troops were occupying Utah, fearing a Mormon uprising. Fort Douglas, located on the side of the Wasatch Mountains overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, is the only US fort constructed with the artillery facing toward the nearest city, not away from it.

At this point, the president and prophet of the church had a revelation in which polygamy was ordered to cease. Many church members, however, are still sympathetic to polygamy, since most members' families had practiced it in the not too distant past. Furthermore, a large number refuse to accept both the law and the revelation and continue to practice it as members of sects that have broken with the church. Estimates by the attorney general of Utah place practicing polygamists in the state at 50,000—a large percentage of Utah's sparse 1.3 million population. This is one of Utah's better-kept secrets.


When the Singers missed the April 6 hearing, Judge Larson issued a self-serving formal statement.

By law, children in this state have a right to an education and a duty to attend school. Children are no longer regarded as chattels of their parents. They are persons with legal rights and obligations. The rights of parents do not transcend the right of a child to an education nor the child's duty to attend school. Parents who fear the negative influence of public education should also examine the damaging effects of teaching a child disobedience to law and defiance of authority. For several years the Singer children have been denied an education by their parents, making their educational achievement far below children of similar ages. For this reason they have been declared neglected. Every conceivable attempt has been made to assure these children an education compatible with their parents' belief, including a school program at home. All attempts to meet the requirements of the law have been consistently refused.

They cite their freedoms, the Constitution and God, to support their stand. Freedom is the child of obedience to law. Without obedience to law we would have no freedom. The Constitution guarantees certain rights to all citizens. This same constitution provides for a judicial system in which these rights are protected and enforced. Every opportunity has been given the Singers to pursue their rights in the Courts, including the appointment of counsel and stays of this Court's orders. Each has been met with further defiance.

It is difficult to understand the violation of law in the name of God when God teaches obedience to law.

The law of this State has been carefully considered and established by legislative action. It can only be changed by the same process. This Court has the duty to enforce the law. In the present instance the action, from the beginning, has been focused on the best interest of the Singer children. This family unit could be maintained if the Singers were willing to comply with the law. These valuable children deserve an education and opportunity to grow to the fullest extent of their potential in a climate which teaches obedience to law. It is with considerable reluctance that the Court directs that previous orders be carried out.

On June 9, Summit County Sheriff Robinson drove to the Singer farm. Leaving his gun in the car, he approached Singer.

"I've come to carry out the Court orders," he said.

"I'm not going anywhere," was John's answer.

Referring to John's gun he asked, "Would you use that?"

"I would rather be buried in my garden than go with you," John replied.


The reaction of the residents of Utah has been overwhelming, causing a paranoid response on the part of those responsible. The morning after the shooting, graffiti (normally absent in Salt Lake City) sprang up all over. "John Singer was murdered," it read.

That seemed to be the common opinion. According to Robert Black, publisher of an underground polygamist Mormon paper, "I think it's terrible that a man has been murdered because of his religious convictions—murdered by law enforcement officers. That's a crime I thought we'd done away with—that we didn't have here in this country anymore." A number of editorials likened the death of John Singer to the murder of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

The switchboard at the state capitol was jammed for days. One caller wanted to know, "Who executed John Singer?" To this date, the law enforcement officials have refused to identify any of the 10 officers involved in the shooting, fearing for their lives.

Twenty four hours after John Singer was killed, the entire state capitol, including both houses of the legislature, had to be cleared because of a bomb threat.

The reaction of state officials to the shooting incorporated the "Nuremberg defense" that Singer had objected to with great passion during the postwar trials: Gov. Scott Matheson regretted the death but defended the officers, who were acting "under court order." One Utah State Board of Education member responded, "I'm sorry the man forced the issue the way he did…and education is not the only issue here. This is a man who violated the laws of the land.…we're inviting chaos when we allow people to choose what laws they will obey."

Utah Attorney General Robert Hansen, who was involved in the case, appeared in January before a legislative committee carrying a gun and wearing a bullet-proof vest because of threats against his life stemming from the Singer case. The polygamist culture in Utah is associated with a history of violence, though the Singers were never a part of any of those actions. These threats have been taken very seriously, and undoubtedly, many of them are serious.

Vickie Singer and her seven children have returned to their mountain farm. Some public school teachers who sympathize with the Singers have volunteered to tutor the children, ending the need for state monitoring.

The law enforcement officers, educators, and prosecutors continue to fear many followers of John Singer even though he was buried in the last week of January, along with the "Flag of the Kingdom of God"—a hand-sewn flag representing Singer's allegiance to his own beliefs and his opposition to State control of his children's minds.

Gerald King holds degrees in business and education from Indiana University. He taught at Granite Alternative High School in Salt Lake City for two years and is now "pursuing economic prosperity on the sun coast of Florida."