SALT LAKE CITY – High-ranking polygamous leader Lyle Jeffs will have to wait to find out if he can leave jail pending trial on accusations he helped orchestrate a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart said Wednesday that he would rule later on the request from Jeffs' attorney, who argued he was being treated unfairly due to his religious practices. The court hearing in Salt Lake City drew about two dozen members of the secretive sect based on the Utah-Arizona border, including women in prairie dresses and traditional updos.
Prosecutors say Lyle Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations of the sect. He is the last suspect still behind bars among 11 people indicted on charges of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits.
The volume of food stamp purchases at two small church-run convenience stores was so large that it rivaled retailers the size of Wal-Mart and Costco, prosecutors say.
The food stamp crackdown marked the government's latest move against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, coinciding with legal battles in two states over child labor and discrimination against nonbelievers.
At the hearing, federal public defender Kathryn Nester said Jeffs is willing to accept conditions of supervised release, including living in a house in Provo that is some 275 miles north of the polygamous community to squash any worries that he would influence witness testimony.
Nester criticized federal prosecutors for using stale evidence and hearsay to suggest Jeffs would interfere with witnesses and skip future hearings. Anybody else charged with fraud and money laundering would be allowed out, she said.
"The lady of justice is blind for a reason," said Nester, later adding, "We are getting into sticky waters: Are we going to detain him because he practices polygamy?"
The judge pushed back on the notion he would make a decision based solely on religion and told Nester he had a hard time believing her claim that Jeffs played a minor role in the scheme.
Stewart recently freed three others accused of being ringleaders of the operation, reversing decisions by different judges.
Federal prosecutor Robert Lund said Jeffs can't be trusted to abide by the conditions of release because he has proven fiercely loyal to his brother, imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is considered a prophet and is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
Lyle Jeffs obstructed justice to help Warren Jeffs remain a fugitive during the mid-2000s, Lund said. The practice of polygamy, which includes underage marriages, also shows Lyle Jeffs' willingness to break the law, the prosecutor said.
"This defendant is openly defiant of the law," Lund said. "He does not respect civil authority."
The hearing came amid speculation that Warren Jeffs was predicting an apocalypse Wednesday, a date sect members believe to be Jesus Christ's birthday.
It wasn't mentioned at the hearing. The rumors seemed to be fueled by outsiders, said Willie Jessop, a former bodyguard for Warren Jeffs now helping the government in this case.
The sect, based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
Last month, a jury in Phoenix decided the towns violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups.