Things to know about polygamous sect food stamp fraud case

AP News
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Posted: Feb 26, 2016 12:05 PM
Things to know about polygamous sect food stamp fraud case

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border is reeling after 11 members were indicted this week on allegations that leaders carried out widespread food stamp fraud and money laundering.

A closer look at what's happening:

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WHAT IS THE SECT ACCUSED OF DOING?

Federal prosecutors say church leaders orchestrated a yearslong scheme instructing members how to use food-stamp benefits illegally for the benefit of the faith and avoid getting caught.

Followers would scan their food stamp debit cards at church-run stores, leaving the money with the owners, prosecutors say. Group leaders then funneled money to front companies. Some of those funds were used to pay thousands for a tractor and a truck, the indictment shows.

The volume of food stamp purchases at two small convenience stores was so large that it rivaled retailers the size of Wal-Mart and Costco, prosecutors say, with the total amount diverted and laundered estimated at $12 million.

Another common practice was buying groceries with food stamps and giving the supplies to the church's communal storehouse for leaders to divvy up.

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WHERE DID THIS HAPPEN?

In the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona — the base for the group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

Defense attorneys have not yet commented on the allegations. The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.

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WHO WAS CHARGED?

Several key players in the sect:

— Lyle Jeffs, who runs day-to-day operations in the community by carrying out orders from his imprisoned brother Warren Jeffs.

— Seth Jeffs, another brother who runs the group's South Dakota compound.

— John Wayman, a confidant of Warren Jeffs' who handles legal and tax issues.

— Nephi Steed Allred, an accountant who set up corporations and helped move around the group's money, prosecutors say.

They face up to five years in prison on the fraud charges and up to 20 years in money laundering.

Warren Jeffs was not charged in the scheme. The sect leader has been in a Texas prison for years, serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting two young girls he considered brides.

Prosecutors and former members say he leads from behind bars by communicating via mail and occasional phone calls.

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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Four suspects are still at large. Three lower-level defendants are out on supervised release. The key players are behind bars pending detention hearings in federal courts in Utah and South Dakota.

Prosecutors have asked judges to keep them in custody, arguing they are likely to flee and try to hide in the group's elaborate network of houses throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada. They say the polygamists likely would use aliases, disguises, false identification and prepaid cellphones to avoid being caught — just as Warren Jeffs did in the mid-2000s.

Prosecutors revealed in court documents that Lyle Jeffs has a ranch in South America, according to one of his estranged wives.

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HAS THE SECT BEEN BUSTED BEFORE?

Yes, but this crackdown marks one of the biggest blows to the group in years.

It comes amid a civil rights trial in Phoenix against the Utah-Arizona community, which prosecutors say discriminated against nonbelievers by denying them housing, water services and police protection.

Federal labor lawyers also are going after church leaders on allegations that they ordered parents to put their kids to work for long hours for little pay on a Utah pecan farm.

The community denies the allegations.

In 2008, authorities carried out a massive raid on the sect's remote Texas ranch, collecting evidence that sent Warren Jeffs and several of his deputies to prison.

In 2005, Utah seized control of a church trust holding more than 700 homes estimated to be worth over $100 million amid allegations of mismanagement.

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HOW HAVE AUTHORITIES UNCOVERED THE GROUP'S ACTIVITIES?

Prosecutors aren't unveiling exactly how they discovered the scheme, but a steady exodus of followers who have left or been kicked out of the sect in recent years has given investigators an expanding pool of witnesses to help unlock secrets about its operation.

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WILL THE TAKEDOWN DESTROY THE SECT?

No, though it was expected to rattle the group.

Mid-ranking leaders who have been closely involved in business and religious dealings will likely fill the vacated roles, even it takes time to find their footing, former members and experts say.

Warren Jeffs will likely spin the arrests by telling his flock that the crackdown is further proof the government is an evil entity out to attack their way of life, ex-followers say.