RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — A U.S. magistrate judge ordered the alleged South Dakota leader of Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect to remain behind bars because there is a serious risk he would flee before a trial over what prosecutors say was a multi-million-dollar food stamp fraud scheme and money laundering.
Seth Jeffs was one of 11 sect members indicted last week on allegations that leaders diverted at least $12 million worth of federal benefits by telling hundreds of members to buy things and give them to a church warehouse or by using the food stamps in sect-owned stores without actually getting anything in return.
Jeffs, 42, had a detention hearing Monday, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Daneta Wollmann ordered him held in custody because she determined he is a serious flight risk. U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch in Utah said Jeffs, who is being transported to Utah, could appeal the decision to the trial judge.
A trial date has not been set.
Authorities say Jeffs leads a compound of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members in rural Custer County, South Dakota. The sect is based in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
Prosecutors asked Wollmann to keep Jeffs in custody, arguing he would be likely to use a network of hiding places and use aliases, disguises and pre-paid cellphones to evade capture.
"They are anti-government," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Patterson said. "They are anti-law enforcement."
Jeffs has a pilot's license and had a passport card and multiple credit cards with different business names in his possession when he was arrested, Patterson said.
Prosecutors also pointed to Seth Jeffs' guilty plea in 2006 to harboring Warren Jeffs as a fugitive. But Defense Attorney Jeffrey Connolly argued that Jeffs demonstrated in the previous criminal case, when he was granted pre-trial release, that he is not a flight risk.
Jeffs downplayed his church role to South Dakota water regulators last year, and Connolly called his designation as a "top leader" in the church "a bridge too far." Jeffs has worked with the state as part of the request to draw water more quickly at the group's South Dakota compound, Connolly said in arguing for his release.
"I think he's had a very cordial relationship with many members of the government," Connolly said.