SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A polygamist sect leader accused of orchestrating a yearslong, multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud will remain behind bars as he awaits trial, a judge ruled Monday, rejecting testimony from family and friends who said he would not flee because he cares about his followers.
Lyle Jeffs is accused of defrauding the federal government of taxpayer funds and depriving needy people of food, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead said. Those allegations cast doubt on the testimony from Jeffs' sister, Mary Musser, who called him a nurturing, involved father who is admired as a spiritual leader in the twin polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border, the judge said.
Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations of the group, whose leaders have been indicted on allegations of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits. They instructed followers to buy items and give them to a church warehouse or use food stamps in sect-owned stores without getting anything in return, prosecutors say.
The hearing offered a glimpse of how defense attorneys may counter the government's case, which marked one of the biggest crackdowns on the group in years. It came the same day a federal jury in Phoenix found the polygamous towns violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
In Salt Lake City, federal public defender Kathryn Nester said Jeffs is being treating unfairly due his religious beliefs. She said Jeffs is not dangerous and has deep connections to the community that is the base for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
"To get up and abandon it would be completely out of character," Nester said. "He's spent his whole life caring for these people."
Jeffs' sister and Edwin Barlow, a member of the town council in Hildale, Utah, chuckled and scoffed at prosecutors' suggestions that Jeffs would use aliases, disguises, secret rooms, bunkers and weapons to elude authorities.
Those are some of the tactics his brother, imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, used during the mid-2000s before he was caught, authorities say.
"Lyle Jeffs does not respect this court's authority," prosecutor Robert Lund said. "At a minimum, Lyle Jeffs believes there are higher authorities that he answers to other than this court."
Jeffs is one of 11 sect members indicted in the food stamp scheme and has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have released other suspects but are fighting to keep three other top leaders besides Jeffs behind bars.
In the scheme, followers would scan their food stamp debit cards at church-run stores, leaving the money with the owners, prosecutors say. Leaders are accused of funneling money to front companies.
Defense witnesses portrayed the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, as a normal, law-abiding community hurt by government involvement.
Church member David Richard Barlow said Lyle Jeffs "has always told us to tell the truth."
But half-brother Wallace Jeffs, who left the sect many years ago, said the judge's ruling was "a great step in finally protecting the children of the FLDS, who are really the victims.
"This is not a religion, this is a criminal organization," he said outside court. "Their sole motive is to abuse and use children for their own benefit."