SALT LAKE CITY – A polygamous sect member who believes writing to imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs is essential to his eternal salvation will be allowed to continue sending monthly letters while he awaits trial on food stamp fraud charges.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart Thursday ruled that Preston Barlow can write the man he considers a prophet but must send copies of every letter to federal prosecutors. He also banned Barlow from receiving any return correspondence from Jeffs.
Prosecutors had objected to lifting a ban put in place after Barlow was arrested recently on suspicion of violating his pretrial release by being near two co-defendants. But they agreed to the letter-writing arrangement after Stewart banned responses from Jeffs.
The unusual request was the latest example of how this case has pulled back the curtain on the secretive practices of the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The group is based in a remote, red-rock community on the Utah-Arizona border that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
It was also another sign the suspects will continue asserting their religious rights. The 11 people arrested in February are also arguing that they were following religiously rooted communal living practices and not breaking the law by sharing items bought with the food stamps. They have pleaded not guilty to food stamp fraud and money laundering.
Barlow's attorney Scott Williams said during the hearing in Salt Lake City that Barlow's letters have nothing to do with the case, but are vital to his client's religious beliefs. Williams called them Barlow's "conduit of expression" to a prophet he's been writing his entire life.
"Where can be the harm?" said Williams. "They don't write in pig Latin or anything."
It is common for members of the sect to show their devotion to Jeffs by sending him letters. Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
When Jeffs arrived at the East Texas prison in 2011, he was getting more than 1,000 letters a day. That pace has slowed since, but he still receives up to 300 letters on some days. Texas prison officials say they every piece of mail is opened and inspected for things such as contraband.
Though Williams said Barlow doesn't get responses from Jeffs, prosecutors allege Jeffs still has ways to convey instructions and messages to his followers. That's a problem, they say, because the suspects are blindly loyal to Warren Jeffs, putting them at risk of violating court orders to follow their religious leader.
They say two of the suspects who violated their pretrial release conditions by meeting to conduct church matters recently did so at the behest of Jeffs despite knowing it wasn't allowed.
The FBI also said this week while announcing a $50,000 reward for fugitive Lyle Jeffs that a recent fall out between the brothers came after Lyle Jeffs refused to follow an order sent from prison by Warren Jeffs.
Lyle Jeffs slipped out of his GPS ankle monitor and escaped home confinement in Salt Lake City in June while awaiting trial in the case. He is the highest-ranking leader ensnarled in the scheme.
Stewart also granted Barlow's request Thursday to be allowed to meet with three other co-defendants to do business, but they aren't supposed to talk about the case.
Williams said Barlow is a contractor for an electricity company in the community. He is also the owner and operator of a dairy farm and store.