CUSTER | While hundreds of federal agents were raiding two towns in Arizona and Utah Tuesday morning, breaking down doors and leveling fraud charges against the leaders of a religious sect, a lone Black Hills lawman ventured to the sect's local compound and nabbed his man.
Seth Steed Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' remote and controversial compound near the small town of Pringle, was one of 11 FLDS leaders and members arrested in three states. Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler apprehended Jeffs without incident on a highway near Custer.
Although the FLDS has a name that suggests it is part of the Mormon church, it actually split decades ago from the mainstream church. FLDS members reportedly continue to practice plural marriage.
Seth Jeffs is the 42-year-old brother of former FLDS president Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for a conviction on two counts of child sexual assault.
The two-count indictment unsealed Tuesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City charges Seth Jeffs and other FLDS leaders and members with diverting federal food-stamp money from authorized beneficiaries to leaders of the FLDS Church for use by ineligible beneficiaries and for unapproved purposes.
The value of the food stamp benefits, distributed through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, amounted to millions of dollars annually, and the alleged fraud dated to 2011, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Utah.
“This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud,” U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said in the prepared release. “This indictment charges a sophisticated group of individuals … who conspired to defraud a program intended to help low-income individuals and families purchase food.”
In addition to Seth Jeffs, the following are charged in the indictment:
• Hildale, Utah, residents Lyle Steed Jeffs, 56, also a brother of Warren Jeffs; John Clifton Wayman, 56; Kimball Dee Barlow, 51; Winford Johnson Barlow, 50; Rulon Mormon Barlow, 45; Ruth Peine Barlow, 41; and Preston Yates Barlow, 41.
• Colorado City, Ariz., residents Nephi Steed Allred; Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, 55; and Kristal Meldrum Dutson, 55.
In the physical absence of Warren Jeffs, Lyle Jeffs handles the daily affairs of the organization, including its financial matters, while Seth Jeffs served as "bishop" of the South Dakota compound, according to U.S. Attorney Huber.
Wheeler gave this account of his arrest of Seth Jeffs:
At about 10 a.m. Tuesday, Wheeler, armed with an arrest warrant, traveled alone to the FLDS compound near Pringle, but Jeffs wasn't there. Wheeler's target soon was spotted nearby traveling with four or five females in a white Ford Excursion.
“We made the arrest on the highway,” Wheeler said late Tuesday, as if his action were routine instead of part of a massive, concerted bust. Jeffs offered no resistance when he was detained about 4 miles south of Custer on U.S. Highway 385, Wheeler said.
Seth Jeffs, who was being held Tuesday night in the Pennington County Jail, is scheduled to make his initial appearance at 2:20 p.m. Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Daneta Wollman in the federal courthouse in Rapid City.
The case was investigated by the FBI, Washington County (Utah) Sheriff’s Office, IRS Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, and the Washington County Attorney’s Office. The Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Mohave Sheriff’s Office, the FBI’s Minneapolis and Phoenix field offices, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota, and the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigations assisted with the case.
“The violations included in the indictment are especially egregious since they allege that leaders of the conspiracy directed others to commit crimes, for which only certain people benefited,” Eric Barnhart, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City Field Office said in a prepared release. “This type of conduct represents nothing less than pure theft."
Late Tuesday, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch in Salt Lake City confirmed that some proceeds of the alleged conspiracy were spent in South Dakota, although she declined to elaborate.
The charges are the government's latest move targeting the sect based on the Utah-Arizona border, coinciding with legal battles in two states over child labor and discrimination against nonbelievers.
Prosecutors say church leaders, including the Jeffs brothers, diverted funds from Utah's nutrition assistance program for inappropriate use, including forcing members to put food into a communal storehouse so leaders could divvy it up.
They also would swipe the cards at church-run stores without walking away with foods or goods, leaving the money to the store owners. Some of those funds were then used to pay thousands of dollars for a tractor and a truck, according to the 16-page indictment.
Investigators reportedly received assistance from large numbers of people who had been kicked out or left the sect amid a series of increasingly bizarre orders from Lyle Jeffs and leaders loyal to him, said private investigator Sam Brower, who has spent years investigating the group.
"This is huge blow," Brower said. "Combined with everything else, it's incredible."
The raids caused a stir in the sister cities Hildale and Colorado City, which have a combined population of 7,700, with residents snapping pictures.
Resident Andrew Chatwin, a former member of the group, said officers went into five businesses, including a dairy store, produce store and a contractor. He saw hundreds of agents and at least one woman being led out in handcuffs.
"I'm watching them break in doors," Chatwin said.
The bust goes well beyond fraud, putting in doubt who will lead the group and how members will respond to a decisive message from government officials they have historically despised, said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied the church.
"This is a clear drawing of that magical line in that sand that government will not tolerate crimes committed in the name of religion," Guiora told the Associated Press. "That is seriously important."
If the leaders remain jailed and get convicted, "There are clear questions about who is going to lead a flock that is very leadership dependent," Guiora said.
The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing at which leaders can be contacted. The Associated Press could not verify if the defendants had attorneys yet.
Most of the defendants are expected to make initial court appearances Wednesday. They face up to five years in prison for the food stamp fraud and up to 20 years for money laundering, prosecutors said.
In a development late Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office filed a 14-page motion requesting the court hold the two Jeffs, Wayman and Allred without bond because they are a flight risk and, "there are no conditions that will reasonably assure their appearance as required."
In support of the motion, prosecutors stated that the FLDS leaders had "developed an elaborate system for moving and hiding members of the group to avoid law enforcement detection" including "houses of hiding" and "places of refuge." In addition, FLDS leaders were accustomed to using aliases, disguises, false identification documents, pre-paid phones, pre-paid debit cards and vehicles rented by others to avoid apprehension, the motion stated.