Polygamous leader pleads not guilty to fleeing fraud charges
Posted July 10
SALT LAKE CITY — A polygamous leader who was captured nearly a year after escaping home confinement on federal food-stamp fraud allegations pleaded not guilty Monday to new charges from his time on the run.
Lyle Jeffs faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on a felony charge connected to being a fugitive. It is on top of charges in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp scheme that he is accused of helping orchestrate in a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells ordered Jeffs held behind bars ahead of trial. Jeffs looked thinner than in previous court hearings, his gray hair cut short and shoulders rounded above shackled hands.
He was apparently living out of a pickup truck when he was arrested June 14 near the small South Dakota town of Yankton, close to the Nebraska state line. He was captured after a pawn shop employee looked online and discovered the man who had just sold him two pairs of Leatherman pliers was wanted by the FBI.
Jeffs had been in the area for about two weeks, was running low on resources and was struggling without the help of fellow sect members, the FBI has said.
Investigators say he had recently fallen out with his brother Warren Jeffs, who runs the polygamous group from prison in Texas, where he is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.
Many of the other 10 defendants in the food-stamp scheme struck plea deals with federal prosecutors, but authorities consider Lyle Jeffs to more culpable than others, prosecutor Robert Lund said.
Defense attorney Kathyrn Nester didn't comment after the hearing.
Jeffs and the other defendants are accused of diverting at least $12 million in food stamps to buy tractors, trucks and other items, prosecutors say. Defense attorneys have said that they have a religious belief in communal living and were simply sharing benefits.
Former group member Brenda Nicholson said Monday that she wished Jeffs was facing more charges.
"He has spent years living like royalty. He had the best of everything," she said.
Jeffs, 57, is charged with conspiracy to commit food-stamp fraud, which carries a sentence of up to five years, and money laundering, which could bring up to 10 years in prison.
He was awaiting trial in the fraud case in June 2016 when he used olive oil to slip out of his ankle monitor and escape home confinement in Salt Lake City.
Members of his group, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.