OPINION – The leader of the FLDS Church is on the run, again.
Only this time, it’s Lyle Jeffs instead of his brother Warren who the police will have to pick up and haul back to jail.
Lyle Jeffs, who took the reins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when his brother went to prison, fled from a residence somewhere in Utah County over the weekend after a federal judge released him from jail where he was to await an October trial on federal charges of food stamp fraud.
He was arrested in February and held without bail until his attorney, Kathryn Nester, convinced U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart, during June 9 arguments, that it would be unfair to keep him incarcerated until trial.
Stewart released Jeffs on the condition that he remained in Salt Lake County, wore a GPS monitor and had no contact with any witnesses, alleged victims, 10 co-defendants or his brother, Warren, who is serving a life-plus-20 sentence in a Texas prison for sex crimes committed when he married two young girls, one 12, the other 14.
For the record, the hard right doesn’t view Stewart as a liberal, soft-on-crime judge. Although nominated in 1999 by President Clinton, it was a quid pro quo arrangement. A friend of Sen. Orrin Hatch, Stewart previously served as an administrative assistant to former Rep. Jim Hansen, one of Utah’s most conservative representatives, and as chief of staff for former Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a stalwart Republican. Clinton appointed Stewart in a solely political move to appease Senate Republicans who were stalling Clinton’s other judicial appointments. It became a controversial issue, however, when Hatch demanded that Stewart be pushed to the head of the line for Senate confirmation in front of the other nominees, triggering a Democratic filibuster of his confirmation.
Stewart now finds himself with egg on his face for not keeping Lyle Jeffs behind bars.
I don’t understand why he didn’t see this one coming.
When charges began to mount in Texas, Utah and Arizona, Warren Jeffs went into hiding. It took law enforcement more than a year to find him. He was finally arrested near Las Vegas during a traffic stop by a Nevada State Trooper.
At one point he was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, along with terrorist Osama bin Laden.
When arrested he had more than $55,000 in cash plus credit and ATM cards at his disposal. Money was never a problem while he was evading arrest.
And, money will surely not be a problem for his brother Lyle.
The FLDS Church, despite the recent court rulings against it, is still flush with cash, rock star cash, which means Lyle has the ways and means to stay on the lam for a long time, an argument prosecutors made to try to persuade Stewart to leave him in jail until his trial. Given his vast resources – people, money, safe houses, transportation – he was clearly a flight risk.
To those who have studied and understand this polygamist cult it was a no-brainer. It was never a matter of if he would run, just a question of when it would happen.
Under ordinary circumstances, I could understand why a judge would be reluctant to keep somebody locked up for nine months before going to trial. We are, after all, a nation where everybody is presumed innocent until proven guilty. We are a nation of law and rights to protect the innocent and ensure fair treatment of the guilty. We are a nation of civility. We don’t fling people into dark holes and leave them there to languish, at least not without good reason.
But, the authorities also like to ensure that those charged with a crime show up for trial, which is why setting bail can be a dicey proposition and why, in some instances, it is denied.
That’s why I was shocked by Stewart’s decision.
Didn’t he know who he was dealing with? Didn’t he know how much money Lyle Jeffs had at his fingertips? Didn’t he know that there are enough believers out there willing to house, feed, clothe, hide or transport him to keep him out of jail?
We’ve also witnessed a growing anti-government menace erupt in the time since Warren Jeffs took to the road.
Will the same forces, who went nose to nose with the feds in Bunkerville, Nevada, and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, decide to make a stand with Lyle?
It’s possible, but I would be more concerned about the Mormon fundamentalists.
You see, in the greater context, they have been raised, cradle-to-grave, that the prophet is infallible; that their route to eternal salvation is decided by their fealty to church leaders and elders; that the Gentile world is wicked and evil and must be repelled.
They have the Warren Jeffs experience under their belt now and could be more agitated, more angered, more aggressive than they were when he was on the run.
If nothing else, they have a proven network in place for money drops, fake IDs, safe houses and the like to abet Lyle’s flight from justice.
He will become the cult’s newest martyr and they will make willing sacrifices in his name.
But, ultimately, it will all be futile because as I heard in a movie one time, “Brains will only get you so far and luck always runs out.”
So, Lyle, unless you can pull off a D.B. Cooper, enjoy your road trip because when you get home, you are going to be put away for a very long time.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
Ed. note: Clarification made 11:29 a.m.: The author’s original text referred to the Mormon fundamentalist church not the Mormon Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; the sentence in the third paragraph has been edited for clarity.
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