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Investigators say they noticed something strange when they began tracking food stamp transactions coming out of two small convenience stores in a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border.
The volume of food stamp purchases was so large that it rivaled big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. They said they later learned that residents were scanning their food stamp debit cards at the stores but getting no items in return, letting leaders of the polygamous sect divert the money to front companies. The proceeds paid for a John Deere loader, a Ford truck and $17,000 in paper products, federal prosecutors said. The alleged scheme is at the heart of what marked a major takedown of top leaders of the secretive sect in which followers adhere to the belief that having multiple wiveIs brings exaltation in heaven. Eleven people were charged with food stamp fraud and money laundering, including Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs, top-ranking leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and brothers of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs.
Lyle Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations in the polygamous community of Hildale, Utah, while Seth Jeffs leads a branch of the group in South Dakota. Their brother Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides at a secretive church compound in that state. Prosecutors accuse church leaders of orchestrating a yearslong fraud scheme that included meetings where they told members how to use the use food-stamp benefits illegally for the benefit of the faith and avoid getting caught, charging documents show. One common tactic was buying groceries with the food stamps and giving the supplies to the church’s communal storehouse for leaders to choose how to divvy up. The practice has been called “bleeding the beast,” taking money from a government they disdain and using as they see fit, said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied the church. The arrests — which were made Tuesday in Salt Lake City; Custer County, South Dakota; and the sister cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona — 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. The arrests come amid a civil rights trial in Phoenix against the twin polygamous towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona, in which prosecutors say the communities discriminated against people who were not members of the church by denying them housing, water services and police protection. Federal labor lawyers also are going after the group on allegations that leaders ordered parents to put their kids to work for long hours for little pay on a southern Utah pecan farm. The communities deny those allegations.
Prosecutors said the actions in this new case weren’t coordinated. But Sam Brower, a private investigator who has spent years investigating the group, said one common theme in all the cases is that authorities are finding more willing witnesses with inside knowledge because large numbers of people who have been kicked out or left. Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs and the others are expected to make their initial court appearances in Wednesday in three different federal states. Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to keep them behind bars, arguing in court documents that they are flight risks. They contend if allowed out on bail, they polygamists are likely to flee and seek hiding in the group’s elaborate network of houses throughout North and South America, using aliases, disguises, false identification documents and pre-paid cellphones to help people avoid being caught. The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted. Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing Hildale, said none of those indicted was serving in a government position and that it had nothing to do with the city government. U.S. Attorney John Huber said repeatedly Tuesday that the indictment was not about religion, but fraud. Guiora 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.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has found itself in dire straits. Warren Jeffs, the leader of the polygamist sect on the Utah-Arizona border, is currently serving a life sentence for child rape. The self-described “prophet” is associated with a slew of accusations, from exerting tyrannical control over his numerous wives to molesting underage girls. With Jeffs behind bars as of 2011, however, his brother Lyle Jeffs has taken over FLDS. But the church’s legal tangles didn’t end after their leader’s imprisonment. Last September, the Department of Labor sued FLDS for oppressive child labor conditions, alleging that church leaders put at least 175 children under the age of 13 to work harvesting pecans without compensation. January saw the start of a civil rights trial against the twin polygamous towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah — collectively known as “Short Creek” — where FLDS is headquartered. Prosecutors claim that the communities discriminate against residents who aren’t members of the church, depriving them of housing and essential services like water and police protection. The church denies these allegations. In another crushing blow, in the largest raid to hit Short Creek since the polygamist arrests of 1953, federal authorities indicted Lyle Jeffs, his brother Seth Jeffs and nine other church leaders on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering. “If they’re finally going to prosecute Lyle and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down,” Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs who was expelled from FLDS, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “This pretty much cuts the head off the snake.”
Situated in barren, remote corners of Utah and Arizona, FLDS was established in the 1930s, its members branching off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after that church renounced polygamy. FLDS has upwards of 6,000 members in Short Creek, in addition to networks across the Americas. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described FLDS as a “white supremacist, homophobic, anti-government, totalitarian cult.” In his sermons, Warren Jeffs has declared homosexuality “the worst evil act you can do, next to murder,” and implored women to “build up young husbands by being submissive.” In her book “Stolen Innocence,” former FLDS child bride Elissa Wall recounts that Jeffs taught everyone that “nonwhite people were the most evil of all outsiders.” While FLDS has been open about its disdain for the government, federal prosecutors have made clear that the latest indictment is unrelated to the church’s philosophies. Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber said Tuesday the indictments were about fraud, not about religion. The leaders are accused of executing a years-long ploy to take federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from its intended beneficiaries and put them towards FLDS expenses. Members of the church in Short Creek receive millions of dollars in SNAP benefits each year, according to an indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Utah that was previously sealed. Around 2011, Lyle and Seth Jeffs and their co-conspirators co-conspirators allegedly formed the “United Order,” a subgroup which supposedly constituted “the highest level of worthiness and spiritual preparedness in the church.” United Order participants were required to “donate their lives and all of their material substance to the church.” These superior members allegedly used their food stamps to buy groceries that were turned over to a communal storehouse, from which the leaders redistributed the goods throughout the church, including to individuals ineligible for SNAP. Prosecutors also claim that FLDS leaders created two small convenience stores as fronts for accepting electronic money transfers drawn from SNAP benefits. SNAP beneficiaries swiped their cards at the stores but did not receive any goods in return; instead, the funds were allegedly put towards church expenses such as a tractor purchase. According to the indictment, the convenience stores made more sales than franchisees like Walmart and Costco.
Compared to other cases against FLDS, this one may prove the tipping point because it targets the church’s money supply. State officials in Arizona and Utah told the Salt Lake Tribune that about 700 Short Creek households received a total in food stamp benefits of $7.2 million last year. “I can imagine, using common sense, that if you engage in fraud, it may disqualify you from taking part in the [food stamp] program in the future,” Huber told the Tribune. Wallace Jeffs told the Tribune that the financial implications are “going to bring the church to its knees,” though the fall may not come for a couple years. Lyle and Seth Jeffs were the remaining “backbone” of the church, Jeffs said. Without them, the institution loses credibility. “This is a huge blow,” Sam Brower, a private investigator who has tracked FLDS for years, told the AP. “Combined with everything else, it’s incredible.” Still, there remains the sordid specter of Warren Jeffs, whom many suspect of running the church from jail. Despite his criminal convictions and witnesses testifying to his sexual aggression against young women, Jeffs has clung onto a devoted following. The “prophet” has fathered some 60 children with almost as many wives. Speaking with two of Jeffs’s children who have since broken away from FLDS, CNN reported last September that he is still “firmly in control.” Members of the church are under strict instructions not to watch TV, read books or listen to the radio. As a result, new generations of followers continue to be born, even as scrutiny from the general public and government escalates. “They’re so brainwashed by how my dad is,” Roy Jeffs told CNN, “and I worry sometimes that it would end up in a mass suicide because of how much control he has.”
Tonia Tewell, the director of an organization that helps FLDS members transition out of polygamy, agreed: “Some people would go all the way to death for him, no question.”