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SALT LAKE CITY — Opposing attorneys painted starkly contrasting pictures of Lyle Steed Jeffs Wednesday before a federal judge sent the former Fundamentalist LDS Church leader to prison for misusing millions of dollars in food stamp benefits.
Public defender Kathryn Nester described Jeffs, 57, as a man with sincerely held religious beliefs who tried to take care of a southern Utah community in crisis with his plan to feed people through the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
"It wasn’t technically correct, it wasn’t lawful, but I don’t think it was malicious," she told U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart. "I think this did happen in a perfect storm where bad decisions were made."
Prosecutor Robert Lund countered that Jeffs, the brother of imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, perpetuated an elaborate scheme over many years to divert $11 million in taxpayer-funded SNAP benefits and trained others how to avoid detection. Lyle Jeffs, he said, lived high off those benefits while needy people went hungry.
"This case cries out for a message to that community that they must obey the law," Lund said.
Acknowledging the difficulty in issuing a sentence in what all parties agreed was a novel and unprecedented case, Stewart ordered Jeffs to serve 57 months in prison — 45 months for conspiracy to commit SNAP benefits fraud and 12 months for failure to appear in court. The judge also imposed three years of probation and $1 million in restitution.
Jeffs escaped home confinement several months after being arrested in February 2016 and spent a year on the run before being captured in June. He pleaded guilty to the charges in September. Prosecutors sought a five-year prison sentence.
Under Jeffs' direction, FLDS members donated food bought with SNAP benefits to a communal storehouse and used funds to front companies and pay for a tractor, truck and other items. SNAP benefits also went to people who weren't eligible to receive them.
Nester said the plan to use SNAP benefits arose from a religious belief but went down the wrong path.
"Absolutely nothing about this case is ordinary," Nester said.
Stewart said Jeffs cheated taxpayers and caused hunger and malnutrition in the FLDS community while he and his family lived well. He "blindly" followed the dictates of Warren Jeffs, even when he knew they were wrong, the judge said.
Wearing a striped jail jumpsuit and in shackles and handcuffs, Jeffs spoke softly as he briefly addressed the judge. He said he "humbly and respectfully" recognizes the mistakes he made. He said he failed to research how to properly use SNAP benefits.
"I want to stand clean before my Father in heaven," Jeffs said.
Jeffs said his religious beliefs are sincere and that he doesn't intend to compromise them.
"His heart is his heart, his faith is his faith no matter, and no matter what happens in this courtroom, he's going to continue to believe until he dies," Nester said.
The FLDS Church has ostracized Jeffs, leaving him without a family, a job and any material possessions, she said.
Nester said Jeffs is relieved to have the case behind him and is "prayerful" that his community will heal and move forward.
"He's very hopeful that someday he can be reunited with the family and the community that he loves so much," she said after the hearing.
In arguing for a five-year prison sentence, Lund referenced sexual abuse allegations, child labor and civil rights violations and corruption in the FLDS community. Nester said those things are irrelevant to the fraud case.
Lund said afterward that the characteristics of the defendant are a consideration at sentencing.
"To the degree that Lyle Jeffe has been involved in any criminality, including whether or not he promoted or participated in underage marriages, we thought that was relevant," he said.
Lund called the judge's decision a "just resolution" to the case.
"From the very beginning, we wanted to hold Lyle Jeffs accountable for what he did and these convictions and the sentence do that," he said.
Of the 11 people originally indicted in the case, Jeffs is the only one going to prison. Nine took plea deals, and prosecutors dropped charges against one. None were sentenced to jail, but were required to attend a Department of Agriculture training session on the proper of use of SNAP benefits.
Unlike past hearings in the case where FLDS Church members crowded the courtroom, there were none apparently present Wednesday.
Thomas Jeffs, who identified himself as Lyle Jeffs' son, said outside the courthouse that his father will never be able to see his family or go back to the community. Thomas Jeffs said he left in 2013. He said Lyle Jeffs did the best he could to take care of the struggling town, but that nearly five years in prison is an appropriate sentence.