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After a year on the lam, FBI hopes Lyle Jeffs lacks standing within a polygamous church to keep hiding

First Published      Last Updated Jun 13 2017 10:54 am

Hildale • Hyrum Dutson wasn't surprised when Lyle Jeffs, his former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints bishop, decided to flee from the law.

"If he wants to go, he can go," Dutson said. "I don't believe the court holds jurisdiction over him. He's a bishop. His boss is [FLDS Church President] Warren Steed Jeffs — nobody else."

"I didn't expect him to stay," Dutson added. "If he stayed, that was his business."

Lyle Jeffs slipped his ankle monitor late on June 18 or early June 19 while awaiting a federal trial for alleged food stamp fraud. Almost a year later, he remains at large.




"We are actively utilizing investigative techniques to find Mr. Jeffs," said Eric Barnhart, the special agent in charge at the FBI's Salt Lake City field office.

In an interview Wednesday, Barnhart acknowledged those techniques include seeking the people with whom Lyle Jeffs might be traveling and watching locations associated with the FLDS.

But Barnhart also said the FBI hopes Lyle Jeffs' reduced role with the FLDS might work against him. Communications intercepted from Warren Jeffs at a Texas prison indicate the church president removed his brother as bishop shortly after he absconded.

"He may have a much smaller network," Barnhart said. "Places of hiding may not be available to him that were available to his brother."

[From 2016: Meet Lyle Jeffs, the man who runs a polygamous sect for his imprisoned brother]

Warren Jeffs was on the FBI's list of most wanted fugitives from May 2006 until his capture at a traffic stop near Las Vegas that August. Even with a diminished network, Lyle Jeffs and any supporters may use some of the same tradecraft used to hide Warren Jeffs, Barnhart said.

That could include wearing disguises, moving from hiding spot to hiding spot, circumventing cellphone tracking by using prepaid phones and calling from multiple locations, and frequently changing vehicles.

There also is a reward of up to $50,000. Barnhart said tips have dwindled since the reward was offered in August.

Lyle Jeffs was the bishop of the FLDS' traditional home in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., collectively called Short Creek, and the man running the day-to-day operations of the sect when he and 10 other FLDS members were arrested in February 2016. All 11 had been indicted on two felony counts — attempt to defraud the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and attempt to launder money.

Federal prosecutors allege Lyle Jeffs and the co-defendants defrauded what is commonly called the food stamp program by ordering FLDS members to give food purchased through the program to the church or by converting those benefits to cash. Prosecutors and the FBI said the fraud totaled $12 million.

Over objections from prosecutors and the FBI, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart released Lyle Jeffs to house arrest in Salt Lake County pending trial. There is a federal warrant for his arrest.

Since he absconded, Lyle Jeffs' co-defendants have settled their cases. Two defendants pleaded guilty to one felony. Eight others, including Dutson, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. None received jail time, supervision or was ordered to pay restitution.

The lead prosecutor on those cases, Robert Lund, has said no such offer will be made to Lyle Jeffs.

None of that has diminished the FBI's desire to find Lyle Jeffs, Barnhart said.

"We don't consider him just a run-of-the-mill white-collar-crime fraudster," he said, "because his control over this organization was much greater than we see in other white-collar-crime suspects."

Barnhart sees little chance of Lyle Jeffs ever being a most-wanted fugitive like his brother. Those spots usually are reserved for people accused of violent crimes or the heads of cartels.

In 2006, Warren Jeffs was charged in Utah with being an accomplice to rape. The Utah Supreme Court overturned that conviction, but Warren Jeffs was later convicted in Texas of charges relating to sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives. He is serving a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years.

Court documents in the fraud cases show the FBI found evidence Lyle Jeffs was in Short Creek in July interviewing FLDS members to determine their status in the church when he and Warren Jeffs had a falling-out.

If Lyle Jeffs' role within the FLDS is diminished, it may be news to some church members.

"I don't know where he is, and I don't know whether his calling is changed or not," said FLDS member Norma Richter, "and it doesn't really matter to me. A person that's honorable is always going to be honorable, and from all the experience I've ever had with him, he's always going to be honorable."

Richter said she doesn't even know the charges Lyle Jeffs faces. Whatever they are, she believes they are just another way for the government to persecute Warren Jeffs.

"They're going to all blame it back on Uncle Warren," she said. " 'He's the one that did it. He's the one that started it.' And it's all nonsense."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

 

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