Christianity

Polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs caught after year on lam

Polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs has been captured in South Dakota while apparently living out of his pickup truck after nearly a year on the run, authorities said Thursday.

Jeffs was alone near a lakeside marina and hours away from a compound run by the polygamous group when an off duty police detective spotted the truck Thursday that a tipster told police the days earlier Jeffs was driving, said Eric Barnhart, FBI Special Agent in Charge for the Salt Lake City Division.

Jeffs complied with officers when he was arrested near the small town of Yankton in the southeastern corner of South Dakota, Barnhart said. Authorities believe he had been in that area for the last two weeks.

Authorities had been hunting for Jeffs since he escaped home confinement in Utah on June 18, 2016, ahead of his trial in an alleged multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.

The FBI had issued a $50,000 reward and a wanted poster with bold red lettering saying Jeffs should be considered armed and dangerous. It came a decade after his brother Warren Jeffs was featured on a similar poster. Warren Jeffs is now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.

Barnhart said the agency is working to determine if the unidentified tipster will get a reward.

The FBI announced the capture Thursday morning with a Tweet: "#ARRESTED: FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs in custody after nearly a year on the lam."

Barnhart said investigators believe Jeffs was running out resources and not getting much help from members of the sect. He said investigators are still trying to determine Jeffs' movements for the rest of the time he was missing and declined to discuss other tips received by agents.

"He spent that whole time, I'm sure, looking over his shoulder, wondering about every police officer he saw, every highway patrolman, what person would eventually give him up," Barnhart told reporters.

Jeffs will likely face at least one new felony charge connected to his time on the run, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said. The arrest illustrates that law enforcement eventually catch fugitives, he said.

"It's a serious offense to flee justice and we do not take it lightly. We do not give up. You're not going to get away with it," Huber said.

Jeffs was stopped as drove through the marina after using a bathroom, said Yankton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Rothschadl. He said he did not know why Jeffs was in the area southwest of Sioux Falls where the marina sits next to picturesque Lewis and Clark lake that marks the border of South Dakota and Nebraska.

Jeffs' group, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is based in a small community on the Utah-Arizona border. Members of the sect believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

The group also has a small compound in far west South Dakota that was established more than a decade ago. Known to the faithful as "R23," the compound sits along a gravel road, secluded by tall pine trees, a privacy fence and a guard tower. Barnhart said it is unclear if Jeffs spent any time there.

Jeffs is jailed in Sioux Falls and is being held for the U.S. Marshal Service, Minnehaha County Jail Warden Jeff Gromer said.

He was scheduled to make an initial court appearance Thursday in Sioux Falls and was expected to be returned to Utah in the coming days to face the pending food stamp fraud charges, said Jeffs' attorney, Kathyrn Nester.

Jeffs became a fugitive the weekend of June 18-19, 2016 when he slipped off his GPS ankle monitor using olive oil or another lubricant and fled from a Salt Lake City house where he was on supervised home release, authorities have said. Jeffs and 10 others from the sect were charged with fraud and money laundering in a multimillion dollar food stamp fraud scheme.

Prosecutors accused Jeffs and other sect leaders of instructing followers to buy items with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute products to followers.

They say food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return. The money was then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors have said.

The defendants denied wrongdoing and said they were just sharing food as part of their communal living practices.

Lyle Jeffs was the last of the defendants in the food stamp fraud case still behind bars when U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart reversed an earlier decision and granted Jeffs his release on June 9. Prosecutors opposed that move, arguing Jeffs was a flight risk.

"You have those times when you don't want to say, 'I told you so,' but that's kind of where we're at," Huber said. "We had very serious concerns."

While Jeffs was a fugitive, nine of the 10 other people charged in the high-profile February 2016 bust accepted plea deals. Charges against one man were dismissed.

Federal prosecutors will be under pressure from critics of the sect who believe federal prosecutors went too easy on the other defendants.

Sam Brower, a private investigator who has researched the sect for years said he fears prosecutors will strike a deal with Lyle Jeffs and miss the opportunity to send a message.

"Members of the hierarchy feel that they are untouchable because of what they did with the rest of them," Brower said. "They feel god protected them."

Huber said authorities always considered Jeffs the lead defendant in the case and said he will be treated differently.

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Nord reported from Pierre, South Dakota.