ST. GEORGE – Three members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints entered pleas of not guilty in federal court Wednesday, just one day after federal prosecutors alleged they were part of a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud and money laundering scheme.
The defendants arrived in court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert T. Braithwaite wearing shackles and orange-striped jail uniforms.
Winford Johnson Barlow, 50, was represented by private attorney Michael Thomas, while Ruth Peine Barlow, 41, and Kristal Meldrum Dutson, 55, were found to be indigent by the court and appointed public defenders.
Braithwaite appointed attorney Ryan Stout to represent Barlow and Aric Cramer as Dutson’s attorney.
All three are members of the FLDS polygamous sect which has historically claimed the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, as home base. In a separate motion, prosecutors are also asking the judge to consider placing restrictions on the three defendants before allowing them to post bail.
Braithwaite set a detention hearing for Feb. 29 at 1 p.m. to discuss the motion seeking restrictions on the three defendants, although the judge offered his thoughts on the motion during Wednesday’s court hearing.
“I’m not prejudging,” Judge Braithwaite said during the hearing, “But it looked like there were some pretty strong points … in our memorandum, and I’ve read all the exhibits, which there’s a lot – 30 of them – lays out a pretty good argument that’s a starting point to detain four of them, four of the defendants, but my inclination not so much the other seven. I’m not making a final decision but I’m kind of leaning that way on the other seven.”
Others indicted are Lyle Steed Jeffs, 56, John Clifton Wayman, 56, Kimball Dee Barlow, 51, Rulon Mormon Barlow, 45, and Preston Yates Barlow, 41, all of Hildale; Seth Steed Jeffs, 42, of Custer, South Dakota; and Nephi Steed Allred and Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, 55, of Colorado City.
Federal prosecutors argue that top FLDS leaders Lyle Steed Jeffs, Seth Steed Jeffs, John Clifton Wayman and Nephi Steed Allred are a “serious” flight risk and should not be released before trial.
Lyle Jeffs is a brother to imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, whom FLDS members consider to be the church’s prophet and mouthpiece of God on earth. Although Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting young girls he claimed to have spiritually married, federal prosecutors say he continues to run the organization through his brother Lyle, among other closely trusted men.
Lyle Jeffs and John Wayman, a former FLDS bishop, entered pleas of not guilty Wednesday in a Salt Lake City courtroom while an initial hearing for Seth Jeffs was continued at a federal courthouse in South Dakota. A detention hearing for Seth Jeffs, who is also a brother to Warren Jeffs and is leading a congregation of FLDS members in rural Custer County, South Dakota, is scheduled Feb. 29 at 9 a.m.
Prosecutors allege each defendant was part of a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud the government by conspiring to divert funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
In the motion for detention, prosecutors cite an elaborate system for moving and hiding members of the FLDS group to avoid detection by law enforcement. The system includes apartments and houses in the U.S., western Canada, Mexico and South America, according to the motion, and was originally developed to protect Warren Jeffs from prosecution.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for Utah Rob Lund said one of the things prosecutors are trying to do is disgorge profits from the crime and try to recover taxpayers’ money.
“To the extent that federal monies were diverted for purposes other than intended, that’s a crime,” Lund said, adding that the case has nothing to do with religion.
“The government has gone to a lot of effort and expense to investigate this case – to present this case to a federal grand jury,” Lund said. “We want to be sure that we have our day in court and that we’re able to vindicate the government’s interest.”
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, whose office assisted in the investigation, will participate in prosecuting the case as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Braithwaite said all three defendants may be released on bail as early as Wednesday if both sides can agree to terms of pretrial release. Meanwhile, all three will remain in custody at the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility.
Defense attorney for Winford Barlow declined to comment on the case outside the courtroom.
Cramer, Kristal Dutson’s defense, said his client met with a federal probation officer after the hearing for an interview for pretrial release from custody.
“I will get in touch with the prosecution now,” Cramer said, “and see if we can meet some common ground for her release. If so, they’ll release her today. If not, we’ll have to have the hearing on Monday.”
As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, Cramer said Dutson was still in custody, but that he hoped she would be released soon.
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