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FLDS food stamp fraud case alleges sophisticated operation by church leaders, judge says

(Washington County Sheriff's Office)



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SALT LAKE CITY — Innuendo. Speculation. Salacious representation. Accounts from unconfirmed or biased sources. Stale information.

That's how an attorney for Lyle Steed Jeffs described the arguments by federal prosecutors to keep the bishop of the Utah-based Fundamentalist LDS Church behind bars as he faces charges of an alleged food stamp scheme in the secretive community.

Federal public defender Kathryn Nester argued that the charges against Jeffs allege nonviolent, financial crime while his spotless criminal record and commitment to the community demonstrate he would adhere to the court's conditions if released.

"This is an unprecedented request, to detain someone on a food stamp (fraud) case," Nester said, noting she searched cases nationwide and couldn't find a comparable detention request.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead granted prosecutors' request Monday to keep the FLDS leader behind bars, saying the "peculiar" case goes far beyond a traditional welfare fraud investigation.

Federal prosecutors said little in court Monday, pointing instead to the lengthy motion filed along with the charges against Jeffs, 56, and others claiming that an elaborate system of concealment and ways to avoid detection across several countries developed by FLDS leaders make the defendants extreme flight risks.

Jeffs and 10 others are facing a two-count indictment of conspiracy to commit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) benefits fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Alleging millions of dollars in fraud, prosecutors say church members' food stamp proceeds were diverted from authorized beneficiaries to leaders of the church to use as they saw fit, or the people were instructed to swipe their SNAP cards as if making purchases in church-owned businesses but left empty handed.

"This is a more sophisticated scheme," Pead said, noting the picture the indictment paints indicates some needy FLDS families may not have been given the benefits they were entitled to, while others not approved for SNAP support may have received it.

Pead also noted Jeffs' authority and influence in the community, which he agreed creates a potential for him to obstruct justice in the investigation.

So far, seven defendants in the case have been released under conditions including GPS monitoring, while three, including Jeffs, have been ordered to stay in custody.

The difference between those in custody and those released is their perceived rank in the FLDS Church, Nester argued, calling it "a direct attack on people because of their religious beliefs."

Pead disagreed. "The religion that is being discussed here gives context, it is not a basis for detention," he said.

A detention hearing is still pending for John Clifton Wayman, 56, a former bishop in the border communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. Another defendant, Nephi Steed Allred, is appealing his detention.

Point by point, Nester argued that many of the accusations against Jeffs came from disaffected former FLDS members and family members with "axes to grind." Much of the information in the dozens of pages and exhibits presented by government attorneys pointed not to the fraud accusations, but instead to the case of Lyle Jeffs' brother, Warren Jeffs, she said.

Warren Jeffs, the church's prophet, is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage polygamous brides. With the help of his brother Lyle Jeffs, Warren Jeffs is still believed to direct the affairs of the FLDS Church from his cell. Prosecutors assert that Lyle Jeffs and other defendants in the food stamp fraud case took extensive and deliberate steps to help Warren Jeffs evade the charges against him back in 2006.

The defense called four witnesses Monday, including three FLDS members who testified that the residents of the Hildale and Colorado City communities known as "Short Creek" are law-abiding and cooperative and have suffered since control of its United Effort Plan Trust became tied up in court. Utah seized control of the FLDS trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by church leaders.

Edwin Barlow, a member of the Hildale City Council and a local firefighter, testified that contrary to claims by prosecutors, the fire department never manufactured fake IDs and doesn't have the equipment to do so regardless.

Barlow described an amicable relationship with the multiple law enforcement agencies that patrol the community, specifically discussing the massive search and rescue response that poured in when powerful flash floods killed three women and 10 children last year.

Asked whether the FLDS are a law-abiding people, he answered, "Yes, we are."

Barlow also asserted that Lyle Jeffs, a man he has known for years, is committed to the community and wouldn't leave it behind to run from the law if he were released.

"He loves his people," Barlow said.

Mary Musser, Lyle Jeffs' sister, echoed Barlow's words about her brother's service to the FLDS.

"They all look up to him. They know him as caring and wanting us to succeed," Musser said.

Like Barlow, Musser denied claims that there are any homes or businesses in Short Creek with secret rooms, escape tunnels or gun stashes, as alleged by prosecutors.

"No," she said simply, chuckling at the suggestion that her brother has a secret ranch he could run to somewhere in South America.

Musser agreed that, should Lyle Jeffs be released to live under GPS monitor in a condominium in Hurricane that's just minutes from I-15, she could help bring him groceries and get him to court.

David Barlow, a former Short Creek resident now working construction in Arizona, said that he has never seen Lyle Jeffs with a weapon. Jeffs had instructed the community to refrain from carrying guns, he said.

Asked whether Lyle Jeffs had ever instructed the people to lie to authorities, David Barlow said no.

"Lyle has always told us to tell the truth," David Barlow said.

Following the hearing, Nester declined further comment and said she didn't know whether Jeffs will appeal his detention. A status conference for all of the defendants is scheduled for March 22 in St. George.

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McKenzie Romero

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