ST. GEORGE — Six of the 11 defendants charged in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud case struck plea deals with federal prosecutors Wednesday in U.S. District Court in St. George.
Initially charged with one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and one count of conspiracy to launder money, the six FLDS members pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor count of using SNAP benefits contrary to the law.
During Wednesday’s hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert T. Braithwaite, defendants Kimball Dee Barlow, Winford Johnson Barlow, Rulon Mormon Barlow, Ruth Peine Barlow, Hyrum Bygnal Dutson and Kristal Meldrum Dutson admitted to knowingly diverting SNAP benefits to people who weren’t eligible to receive them.
FLDS co-defendant Preston Yates Barlow is also expected to accept a plea deal. However, his attorney was out of the country Wednesday, and his case will be heard at a later date.
Under the deal, upon pleading guilty to the fraud, the six defendants – who each received the exact same sentence – will not have to serve jail time or probation, and they do not have to pay restitution. The defendants will have to attend a government training class on the proper use of SNAP benefits.
The deals are similar to those accepted earlier this month by co-defendants John Wayman and Seth Jeffs, two high-ranking leaders of the polygamous sect who were both immediately released from jail after entering guilty pleas.
Nephi Steed Allred, who still has a suppression motion pending, and fugitive FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs, who has not been offered a deal since fleeing from police custody, are the only two remaining defendants of the 11 defendants indicted by a federal grand jury in February 2016 on food stamp fraud and money laundering charges.
The defendants allegedly ordered FLDS members to hand over SNAP benefits to church leaders. Federal prosecutors have alleged that the fraud scheme bilked taxpayers out of more than $12 million over the course of five years.
However, outside the courthouse Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund said the exact number of financial loss is difficult to determine.
“With regard to the loss figure that’s mentioned in the indictment, that is not a figure that relates to an easily verifiable figure,” Lund said. “In typical fraud cases, we’re able to determine what investors donated what amount of money and it’s easy to determine. In this case, that figure relates to fraud indicators so, it’s more an estimation than it is an exact figure of loss.”
Regarding the result of the case, Lund said federal prosecutors believe they were able to achieve an appropriate outcome.
“The goal of this prosecution was to try to stop the diversion of SNAP benefits and ensure that needy families receive the food that they’re entitled to have,” Lund said. ” … For the government, we feel like we’ve achieved the goals of this prosecution.”
Aric Cramer, Kristal Dutson’s defense, said the case should never have been brought in the first place and that he believes it would have been a tough case for prosecutors to prove.
“I think it was a good deal for my client even though I don’t believe she was guilty of any crime,” Cramer said, “but to avoid the risks of going to trial and having the jury feel that she may have been a conspirator in some function, having a misdemeanor won’t adversely affect her life.”
However, not everyone is pleased with the results of the case.
After learning of the plea deals, Sam Brower, a private investigator who has been researching the FLDS church for the last 12 years, called Seth Jeffs’ deal “the most insane, incompetent, disturbing and disgraceful miscarriage of justice” he had ever seen.
“It would have been better if the US attorneys office never prosecuted the case to begin with,” Brower said in a statement on Facebook last week.
Echoing Brower’s sentiments, Brenda Nicholson, a former sect member and vocal critic of the FLDS, posted the following statement on Facebook:
Utah, once again I am ashamed of you and appalled at the lack of justice that exists where religion enters the equation. Shame on you. Shame on the incompetent prosecution and shame on Judge Stewart for accepting such insane plea deals.
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