ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — Six additional members of a polygamous group based on the Utah-Arizona border took plea deals Wednesday to avoid jail time in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud case.
The six pleaded guilty to fraud Wednesday in St. George, Utah, leaving only fugitive leader Lyle Jeffs and two others with charges still pending in the case filed February against 11 people. They faced up to 25 years in prison.
Prosecutors accused them of all of participating in a scheme to misuse $12 million in food stamps, though defense attorneys argued they were following religious beliefs by donating benefits to their church.
The southern Utah hearing came after high-ranking leaders Seth Jeffs and John Wayman pleaded guilty in Salt Lake City and were released from jail after six months.
Like Seth Jeffs and Wayman, the six won't be required to pay any restitution as part of their deals, the Spectrum newspaper in St. George reported (http://bit.ly/2hU4vMR).
Federal prosecutor Robert Lund said the plea deals lay a foundation for future prosecution for similar offenses while allowing the suspects to be rehabilitated. They must all take a class on proper uses of food stamps.
Defense attorney Aric Cramer called the case religious persecution that should have never been filed.
"It's like Vietnam - the government declared victory and got out, and everyone's benefited for it," Cramer said. "So I think (the plea agreement) is a wonderful deal."
The six who took the deals worked in different roles managing the two convenience stores where prosecutors say the fraudulent transactions occurred or the community storehouse where food bought by food stamps was brought, with leaders deciding how to distribute it.
They were: Kimball Dee Barlow, 52; Kristal Dutson, 55; Winford Johnson Barlow, 51; Rulon Mormon Barlow, 46; Ruth Peine Barlow, 42: and Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, who turns 61 this month.
Lyle Jeffs, the accused ringleader of the scheme, remains on the run. He escaped home confinement this summer and has not been found. He is the brother of Warren Jeffs, the sect's leader who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.
Known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the group believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven — a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com