ST. GEORGE, Utah — A fugitive polygamous congregational leader who escaped federal custody amid court proceedings over a large-scale church-organized food stamp fraud has been arrested in South Dakota a year after his disappearance from the Salt Lake area.
Lyle Steed Jeffs, 57, of Hildale was booked by the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office at 11:43 p.m. Wednesday, about the time rumors began spreading on social media of his capture.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart said Thursday during a Wasatch Front news conference that Jeffs was arrested after authorities received a tip two weeks ago that he classified as "a very credible sighting" that led authorities to "flood the area (of Yankton, S.D.) with resources."
Jeffs was found to be living out of his vehicle, believed to be a Ford F-150 pickup truck, Barnhart said.
Barnhart declined to reveal the identity of the tipster without that person's permission, but added he would be happy to "give that person their due" if given authorization.
"It's a good story," he said.
Barnhart also said he was not in a position to announce whether the tipster would receive the $50,000 reward offered for Jeffs' arrest, but he noted that "we need to be men and women of our word" and Jeffs wouldn't have been taken back into custody Wednesday without the tip.
Jeffs was the bishop of the core Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints congregation in Hildale and Colorado City — collectively known as Short Creek because of the waterway that bisects the twin communities at the Utah-Arizona state line — although he was removed from his ecclesiastical position after his escape from custody in June 2016, according to federal investigators in the food stamp case.
Jeffs’ brother, Warren, continues to function as the polygamous faith’s prophet-leader despite his conviction on child rape charges and sentence to life in prison in Texas.
Lyle Jeffs was regarded as the highest ranking member of the polygamous church aside from his brother at the time he and 10 conspiracy defendants were arrested in February of last year on charges they directed and enabled church members in Short Creek and South Dakota to donate their federal welfare benefits to church leaders’ use.
The food stamp recipients were then left to rely on often-meager and inadequate resources doled out by the church’s communal storehouse.
Jeffs’ co-defendants entered plea agreements as the charges were reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed in their cases late last year and early this year.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, the defendants were required to participate in a government class on how to use food stamp benefits.
The defendants were not required to pay restitution or serve further incarceration under the sentencing agreement, although the government alleged that the scheme diverted more than $12 million in taxpayer funds for unapproved use by FLDS leadership.
U.S. Attorney John Huber, Utah's top federal prosecutor, said Thursday that it's too soon to comment on details about how Jeffs' prosecution will proceed now that he's back in what Barnhart termed "the loving embrace of law enforcement," but some form of federal felony related to his flight status is anticipated and investigators will also try to determine if anyone helped Jeffs during his time on the run.
"It's a serious offense to flee justice and we do not take it lightly," he said.
Huber added that Jeffs has always been regarded as the most responsible defendant in the food stamp fraud, and the way his case is handled will "in no way resemble" how the other defendants were dealt with.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah had argued against releasing Jeffs from official custody out of concerns the defendant might disappear into any of a number of “houses of hiding” the polygamous faith has been known to use to secrete individuals since its prophet went into a three-year fugitive status before his arrest in 2006.
The faith’s leaders also reportedly have operated larger compounds known as “places of refuge” outside the United States in Canada, Mexico and South America.
Despite the prosecution’s concerns, District Judge Ted Stewart agreed with Jeffs’ defense to free him with a GPS-enabled ankle tracking monitor a year ago — a decision that became controversial after prosecutors’ fears were realized and Jeffs allegedly used cooking oil to slip free of the monitoring device about two weeks later.
Huber said law enforcement authorities have attempted to learn from Jeffs' escape to ensure other defendants don't avail themselves of the same means.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund said in January that investigators found evidence Lyle had returned to Short Creek following his disappearance, but when he “didn’t do some of the things exactly the way (his brother, FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs,) wanted … Lyle fled on his own” and was subsequently ousted for failing to do the prophet’s bidding, raising questions about his relationship with church leadership.
The fact Jeffs has apparently been living out of his vehicle for some time with limited resources or support presents further evidence of a rift leading to what church members regard as "a repentance mission" numerous members have similarly been ordered to take away from the comforts of their homes and community during the past 15 years.
Yankton is in the Sioux City area on the southeastern edge of South Dakota, about 400 miles from the FLDS gathering place overseen by Jeffs' brother, Seth, in the western part of the state and only about 150 miles from Mormon historical sites in Nebraska. FLDS church members share a common heritage with the Mormon church from the period before the latter abandoned polygamy in 1890 and those who resisted the change separated to form their own communities.
Seth Jeffs was among the defendants in the food stamp fraud case granted a plea agreement.
At the time the plea agreements were being entered, Lund reiterated that the plea bargains served a purpose in rehabilitating the offenders while laying a foundation for any potential future prosecution with similar claims.
As a case of “first impression,” the charges that FLDS members violated federal food stamp regulations by “consecrating” them to other church members faced a religious rights challenge that hadn’t been dealt with before, and the law is still “somewhat unsettled” as to the verdict that would be sought in a trial if the case had continued forward, he said.
“There were significant difficulties regarding this case,” Lund said at the time. “(At) no time previously has the government ever charged this factual basis or this particular legal theory. And with regard to the (monetary) loss figure that’s mentioned in the indictment, that is not … an easily verifiable figure.”
Contributing: (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader. Follow reporter Kevin Jenkins on Twitter: @SpectrumJenkins