SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Polygamous leader Lyle Jeffs is a fugitive after slipping out of a GPS ankle monitor last month, but that isn't stopping his attorneys from asking a judge to drop food stamp fraud charges against him.
Jeffs' religious freedom rights allow him and others in the sect to share food stamp benefits as part of their communal living, his attorneys contend in a new court filing Tuesday.
Like Amish who don't send their children to public high school, members of the polygamous group on the Utah-Arizona border believe not donating their food stamp benefits would go against their religious beliefs and "endanger their own salvation," attorneys wrote.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, has been using a community storehouse model since the 1970s, attorneys say.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah declined comment, saying it will respond in an upcoming filing to the court.
Lyle Jeffs and 10 others were arrested and indicted in February on charges of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits.
Prosecutors say sect leaders instructed followers to buy items with their food-stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse, where leaders decided how to distribute products to followers. They say food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return. The money was then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say.
Authorities say Jeffs likely used olive oil or another lubricant to slip off his GPS ankle monitor and escape home confinement last month in Utah.
FBI spokeswoman Sandra Yi Barker said Tuesday Jeffs may have been driven away in a dark, late-model Ford Mustang that neighbors saw at his house June 18.
The 56-year-old Jeffs was supposed to be on home confinement in Salt Lake City pending trial in an alleged multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
He escaped less than two weeks after he was released from jail by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart. The judge pointed out 10 other defendants from the group had already been released and obeyed court's conditions.
Prosecutors objected to his release, calling Jeffs a flight risk.
The FBI has since issued a wanted poster calling Jeffs armed and dangerous.
Lyle Jeffs is the brother of the sect's highest leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. Lyle Jeffs runs day-to-day operations in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.