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Recaptured FLDS Church leader pleads not guilty to fraud, fleeing charges

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SALT LAKE CITY — A polygamous sect leader who spent a year on the run faced a federal judge again Monday on allegations of welfare fraud and a new charge of failing to show up in court.

Wearing an orange and white striped Tooele County Jail jumpsuit and looking grayer and thinner, Lyle Steed Jeffs pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud, money laundering and failure to appear.

Prosecutors tacked on the fleeing charge after recapturing Jeffs, the brother of the incarcerated Fundamentalist LDS Church prophet, Warren Jeffs, last month. Authorities caught up to Lyle Jeffs in southeastern South Dakota after he pawned two Leatherman tools while apparently living out of his pickup truck.

Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells ordered Lyle Jeffs, 57, to remain behind bars pending trial, which she scheduled to start Sept. 18. Jeffs did not contest that he had violated the terms of his release from jail pending trial last year.

Jeffs faces up to five years in prison on the food stamp fraud charge and 10 years for money laundering if convicted. Being convicted of failure to appear could add another 10-year sentence to run consecutively.

Jeffs was among 11 members of the FLDS Church arrested in February 2016 as part of an indictment alleging hundreds of thousands of dollars in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, fraud.

Jeffs was released June 9, 2016, after his attorney argued it would violate her client's rights to keep him in custody until a trial scheduled later that year. He escaped from home confinement in Salt Lake City by using olive oil to slip out of his ankle monitor about 10 days later.

Assistant U.S. attorney Robert Lund told reporters after the hearing that prosecutors consider Jeffs more responsible than the other defendants because of his leadership role in the FLDS Church.

"He's in the highest culpability level," Lund said.

Jeffs' attorney, Kathryn Nester, declined to comment after the hearing.

Prosecutors allege Jeffs oversaw an intricate scheme to divert SNAP benefits away from people authorized to receive them to instead be used as church leaders saw fit.

Church members donated food bought with food stamps to a communal storehouse and used funds to front companies and pay for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors said.

Of the 11 people originally indicted in the case, Jeffs is the only one still facing fraud charges. Nine took plea deals, and prosecutors dropped charges against one. None were sentenced to jail, but they were required to attend a Department of Agriculture training session on the proper of use of SNAP benefits.

Brenda Nicholson, who said she left the FLDS Church five years ago, said outside the courthouse that it was nice to see Jeffs in a similar condition to what he put thousands of people through.

"They're in mental chains. He's in physical chains," she said.

Nicholson said Jeffs controlled how SNAP benefits were distributed and spent many years "living like royalty."

"In all my experience with him, he was just a very cruel and uncaring man. He'd didn't care if you were hurt. He had his agenda, and that all there was to it," she said.


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