Jailed polygamous leaders say they can still be trusted

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The question of how far a person's religious rights extend was back at the forefront during the latest hearing in a food stamp fraud case that led to the arrest of several top-ranking leaders in a polygamous sect based on the Utah-Arizona border.

Attorneys for John Wayman and Seth Jeffs conceded Monday that their clients met on four occasions in late July at the direction of religious leaders who take orders from imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, considered a prophet to his followers.

Those meetings prompted authorities to re-arrest Wayman and Seth Jeffs, alleging they violated their supervised release. Monday's hearing was scheduled so U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart could hear arguments about whether they should be let out again.

Defense lawyers said Wayman and Seth Jeffs, one of Warren Jeffs' brothers, can still be trusted because the meetings — which included one in the middle of the night — weren't to talk about the case or devise an escape plan. They were making phone calls to a list of religious followers for a church meeting designed to bring stability to a group undergoing a major crisis, said attorney Jim Bradshaw, representing Wayman.

"They can have their religion," Bradshaw said. "The government can't stop that."

Judge Stewart didn't rule, but seemed skeptical Wayman and Seth Jeffs are capable of putting court orders ahead of instructions from religious leaders. Stewart said several times that it seems like Wayman and Seth Jeffs are "rationalizing" their actions based on their religion, making him worry about what else they will rationalize.

"He was told not to do it. He knew he would be discovered. Yet, he did it because he is motivated by a higher cause," said Stewart talking about Wayman. "How is this court to believe he will not be motivated by a higher cause to flee?"

Stewart was the judge who granted Lyle Jeffs, another of Warren Jeffs' brothers and a leader of the sect, supervised release June 9. Lyle Jeffs then slipped out of his GPS ankle monitor in mid-June and escaped home confinement.

Prosecutor Robert Lund said federal officials have spent considerable time and resources and still can't find Lyle Jeffs, who they believe is using a network of hiding houses and loads of cash to remain a fugitive. He warned that the same could happen with Wayman and Seth Jeffs. They are both key leaders who have proven they'll follow orders from Warren Jeffs and his brother Nephi Jeffs, currently running the community's day-to-day operations.

"They are more beholden to them than they are to this court," Lund said.

Bradshaw strongly refuted Wayman's alleged leadership post, saying he has the standing of a regular church member.

Attorney Jay Winward, representing Seth Jeffs, said the meetings were not a violation of the orders because the men thought they counted as religious meetings which they believed were permitted.

"The government wants to use religion as a sword," Winward said. "For the most part, this is a group of people that are a law-abiding people."

Twelve members of the sect were arrested and indicted in February on charges of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges.

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 companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say.

Members of the sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

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