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Polygamous church leaders and members indicted, arrested in investigation of alleged food-stamp fraud

First Published      Last Updated Dec 23 2016 10:06 pm

Polygamous sect members are accused of diverting the proceeds of federal food-stamp program.

In a case that some say could destroy Utah's largest polygamous sect, federal prosecutors on Tuesday announced indictments against leaders and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on charges related to food stamp fraud.

Lyle Jeffs, who has been running the FLDS for his imprisoned brother, is one of nearly a dozen people named in an indictment that was unsealed Tuesday while FBI agents and sheriffs deputies searched businesses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., that are owned by members of the FLDS.

Also indicted was Seth Jeffs, full brother to both Lyle and FLDS President Warren Jeffs, the religion's prophet, who is serving a sentence of up to life in prison plus 20 years in Texas for crimes related to marrying and sexually abusing underage girls.

"If they're finally going to prosecute Lyle and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down," said Wallace Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' half-brother who was expelled from the church. "This pretty much cuts the head off the snake."

Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, are home to the FLDS church. Isaac Wyler, a former member of the church, said Tuesday's action appears to be the largest law enforcement raid in the towns since 1953, when Arizona authorities arrived to arrest polygamists.

"There are officers all over town," Wyler said.

Lyle Jeffs and 10 other FLDS church leaders and members were indicted Tuesday in Utah and South Dakota, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office.

A large percentage of FLDS church members living in Short Creek receive SNAP benefits, amounting to millions of dollars in benefits per year, the news release said.

Prosecutors say church leaders ordered members to give their SNAP benefits — in food and cash transfers — to the church, which collects and redistributes commodities to the community. The leaders tell church members that they must obtain their food and household goods only through the church, the indictment alleges.

"This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud," U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said of the multiyear investigation. "This indictment charges a sophisticated group of individuals operating in the Hildale­-Colorado City community who conspired to defraud a program intended to help low-­income individuals and families purchase food."

Charged in the indictment are Lyle Steed Jeffs, 56, 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, all of Hildale.

Also charged are Nephi Steed Allred, 40, Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, 55, and Kristal Meldrum Dutson, 55, all of Colorado City; and Seth Steed Jeffs, 42, of Custer, South Dakota.

Lyle Jeffs, Wayman, Seth Jeffs, Ruth Barlow, Kristal Dutson and Winford Barlow were in custody Tuesday night. They face one count each of conspiring to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

In the physical absence of Warren Jeffs, Lyle Jeffs handles the daily affairs of the organization, including its financial matters, prosecutors said. Seth Jeffs, another of Warren Jeffs' brothers, leads a congregation of FLDS members in rural South Dakota.

Wallace Jeffs said that targeting the church financially "is going to bring the church to its knees," although he thought it might take "a year or two."

"The church is basically just a money laundering criminal organization. The fact that they're actually targeting them financially ... is going to bring the church to its knees."

But Wallace Jeffs, who has been in and out of the church's good graces over the years, added that the FLDS church likely will remain operational for the immediate future.

"They still have people who can operate the church even though Lyle's arrested," Wallace Jeffs said. "They always have resources to fall back on in case of an emergency like this."

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