SALT LAKE CITY — The FBI offered a $50,000 reward Monday for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Lyle Steed Jeffs.
Jeffs apparently used olive oil to slip off his GPS ankle monitor just days after a federal judge released him from custody June 9 over prosecutors' objections. Authorities believe he fled from a Salt Lake County home where he was living during the weekend of June 18-19.
Jeffs, 56, had been held in the Iron County Jail since his arrest in February for alleged food stamp fraud.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart said Jeffs was seen in July in the Short Creek area where the polygamous twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are located. Barnhart said authorities believe he may still be in the United States and in Utah, though he didn't rule out that Jeffs has left the country.
Investigators also believe Jeffs had a rift with 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. Lyle Jeffs failed to carry out directions he received from Warren Jeffs out of fear of being caught while on the run, Barnhart said.
"(We) don't know how to characterize it, but it could possibly be a fracturing of the leadership of the FLDS Church," he said Monday.
Despite the split, Barnhart said, he believes Lyle Jeffs still has supporters willing to hide him and keep him from being arrested.
Lyle Jeffs was believed to have been running the church at the direction of his imprisoned brother. But Warren Jeffs removed Lyle Jeffs as presiding bishop of the Short Creek Stake, according to court documents.
The FLDS Church 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, according to prosecutors.
In a warrant issued with the fraud indictment earlier this year, investigators said few FLDS members have been told about the South America property, which Lyle Jeffs owns.
Lyle Jeffs has in the past used aliases, lived in a motor home and traveled regularly to avoid being found, facilitated the smuggling of audio recordings out of prison for his brother, and helped hide a grand jury witness from the FBI, according to court documents.
Barnhart said Lyle Jeffs might be in disguise as Warren Jeffs was when he was a fugitive in 2006. But, he said, it's just a matter of time before he is caught.
"You can stay hidden for a while, but not forever," Barnhart said.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ordered Lyle Jeffs to adhere to strict conditions upon his release, including that he live in Salt Lake County, wear a GPS monitor and have no contact with any witnesses or the 10 co-defendants in the case or with Warren Jeffs.
Earlier this month, Stewart sent two other defendants in the case — Seth Steed Jeffs and John Clifton Wayman — back to jail after he found they had violated the terms of their release by meeting together under instructions from Warren Jeffs. The meeting was held to vet disassociated members for rebaptism into the church.
Stewart also wasn't convinced the two men wouldn't flee if Warren Jeffs told them to because he said they are more beholden to the FLDS leader than to the court.
Lyle Jeffs, Seth Jeffs and Wayman are among 11 FLDS members who were charged in February with misusing food stamps and diverting millions of dollars to front companies and buy equipment. They have pleaded not guilty.illions of dollars to front companies and buy equipment. They have pleaded not guilty.