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SALT LAKE CITY — Days after a judge released Lyle Jeffs from jail to await trial in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud case, the polygamous leader did just what prosecutors and estranged family members said he would do — he ran.
Jeffs, who is believed to be running the Fundamentalist LDS Church on behalf of his imprisoned brother, had been held without bail in Iron County Jail since his arrest in February, but was released June 9 after his attorney, Kathryn Nester, argued that it would violate her client's rights to keep him in custody until the monthlong trial expected to begin in October.
Attorneys on both sides say the fraud case is complicated, with 200 identified witnesses and 56 terabytes of information.
Jeffs disappeared over the weekend and a federal warrant was issued for his arrest, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart had ordered Jeffs to adhere to strict conditions if released, including that he live in Salt Lake County, wear a GPS monitor and have no contact with any witnesses, alleged victims, 10 co-defendants in the case and his brother, Warren Jeffs, who is considered the FLDS prophet and is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage brides.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has researched the church for years, confirmed Monday he was contacted by the FBI over the weekend and asked to have his contacts in Short Creek — the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona — be on the lookout for Lyle Jeffs.
Brower also voiced frustration Monday that Jeffs was released in the first place.
"I suppose that as long as the judicial system continues to look at the FLDS as a religion instead of an organized crime operation, these preventable mistakes will continue to be made," Brower said. "I'm frustrated. I'm sure law enforcement and prosecution is as well because they know that Lyle works for the most prolific pedophile in U.S. history. But bringing awareness is still an issue with many."
Alleging $191,000 in fraud, an indictment handed down in February states that FLDS Church members' benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, 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.
At the time of Lyle Jeffs' arrest, prosecutors and one of the man's estranged sons said they believed the FLDS leader would run if released, using the same plans and resources believed to have kept Warren Jeffs out of the reach of the law in 2006.
Leroy Jeffs, an estranged son of Warren Jeffs, agreed.
"If they got bail, they'd definitely run. That's a given. They'd run just like my dad ran," Leroy Jeffs said at the time.
According to prosecutors, the FLDS and its leaders, specifically Lyle Jeffs, maintained an elaborate network of cash drops, fake IDs and safe houses in the U.S., Canada and South America to avoid law enforcement. In a warrant issued alongside the indictment earlier this year, investigators said few FLDS members have been told about the South America property, which Lyle Jeffs owns.
The motion also claims that in the past, Lyle Jeffs has used aliases, lived in a motor home and traveled regularly to avoid being found, facilitated smuggling audio recordings out of prison for his brother, and helped hide a grand jury witness from the FBI.
Brower said Monday that Jeffs would have every reason to run if released, and all the resources he would need to do it.
"He has unlimited resources as far as financial resources, vehicles, aircraft, everything that you could think of, are available to him not only in his escape, but staying gone," Brower said. "All of those things were put together while Warren Jeffs was on the run, and they learn, they adapt, and they get better at it as time goes on."
Brower believes Lyle Jeffs has learned from his brother's experience and will avoid making the same mistakes that led to Warren Jeffs' arrest.
With their leader gone, Brower fears the remaining 11 defendants who have also been released may flee as well.
As he argued earlier this month to keep Jeffs in custody, prosecutor Tyler Murray also emphasized the enormous power Jeffs wields in the FLDS community even while incarcerated. Jeffs, he said, has the ability to intimidate witnesses by removing them from their homes, taking away their jobs and sending them on "repentance missions."
In a motion filed Friday, Nester requested additional allowances for her client as part of his release, including that Jeffs be allowed to work remotely from his temporary Salt Lake residence providing bids for one of his son's contracting businesses and that he be allowed visits from a sealed list of family members.
The motion also asked that Jeffs be allowed to continue his involvement in the FLDS Church by allowing specific members to come to his residence on Sundays to hold religious services and requesting he be permitted to receive written correspondence from church members so that he can pray for them, though without physically answering their letters.
"Mr. Jeffs' religious practices require him to regularly pray for the members of his community and whatever travails they are experiencing in their daily lives," Nester wrote. "Receiving the prayer requests of Mr. Jeffs' faith community would enable Mr. Jeffs to continue his spiritual duties without any concern of exerting undue influence since he would not respond to the letters."
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined further comment about the case. Calls to Jeffs' attorney were not immediately returned.
Anyone with information about Jeffs' whereabouts is asked to contact their local FBI office or the FBI's Salt Lake City field office at 801-579-1400.
Contributing: Ladd Egan, Brianna Bodily