ST. GEORGE — A federal judge has denied polygamous leader Lyle Jeffs’ request to be released from jail pending trial on food stamp fraud and money laundering charges, ruling Jeffs poses a serious risk of fleeing before trial.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart issued a written ruling Thursday agreeing with prosecutors that no set of conditions could reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance in court for trial.
This makes Lyle Jeffs the only defendant still jailed in the case after the arrest of 11 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in February. Each were indicted on allegations of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits.
As the bishop of Short Creek, Lyle Jeffs runs the daily affairs of the FLDS polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border. As such, Stewart said, there are significant concerns that Lyle Jeffs would intimidate witnesses and obstruct justice if released.
“Several witnesses have stated that defendant exercises considerable control over the people and businesses in Short Creek and that there are serious consequences for those that disobey him,” Stewart wrote. “The court is gravely concerned that defendant would use this influence to intimidate witnesses and obstruct justice.”
Stewart said there is evidence Lyle Jeffs has used aliases to avoid law enforcement and that he travels with armed guards who are “willing to take extreme efforts to protect him.”
Stewart also pointed to Lyle Jeffs’ actions while his brother, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Warren Jeffs, who is considered a prophet by the polygamous sect, is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of crimes related to marrying and sexually abusing underage girls he considered brides.
“The evidence shows that Defendant acted as a courier and provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the fugitive Jeffs, no doubt prolonging his flight from justice,” Stewart wrote. “While this information is dated, the fact that Defendant Lyle Jeffs was so willing to assist Jeffs in evading capture provides compelling evidence that he himself is a flight risk. All of this evidence weighs strongly in favor of detention.”
A four-week jury trial for all 11 defendants in the alleged multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud and money laundering scheme is scheduled for May 31. The case will be heard in Salt Lake City’s federal court before Stewart.
Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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