Lyle Jeffs, the acting head of the polygamous, child-bride-marrying Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has disappeared, the FBI says. Jeffs was awaiting trial on federal food stamp fraud and money laundering charges. His brother, Warren, is serving life in prison plus 20 years for raping teenage girls.
Lyle Jeffs is said to have begun serving as the acting head of the FLDS after Warren was convicted in 2011 of sexual abuse, although observers of the sect said Warren was still directing decisions from behind bars. Lyle was believed to have around nine wives in 2005, though it’s unknown how many he has currently; none appear to be children, which is a real mark in his favor. A Salt Lake Tribune profile in January described him as blunt and “often rude to women,” and gave more specifics about his life at the head of an incredibly domineering cult:
Lyle, in his brother’s name, has enforced rigid doctrines unlike any the faith has had before, former members say, with bans on marriages, sex among spouses and a grocery list of foods, such as beans, milk, sugar and chocolate. No one is allowed to read or watch secular media or view the evidence law enforcement collected against Warren in Texas. Lyle also has evicted perhaps hundreds of men, women and children. Others have left on their own.
Lyle, a younger Jeffs brother named Seth and nine other people were arrested in February and charged with money laundering and food stamp fraud. The details of the scheme are both boring and the kind of thing that makes the federal government very, very irritable: The FLDS members are accused of diverting at least $12 million in food stamp benefits, instructing their followers to make purchases at sect-owned convenience stores.
Federal prosecutors think the items purchased were put in a warehouse, to be distributed as church leaders saw fit. Whenever food stamp benefits were “cashed” at the sect-owned stores, users weren’t actually given their money. Instead, it was pocketed by sect leaders, they say, and used to buy things like tractors and trucks and $17,000 in paper products, for some reason.
Lyle Jeffs was released from jail and placed on home confinement less than two weeks ago. He was ordered to wear a GPS monitor and not talk to other witnesses, co-defendants, or Warren. Instead, he has disappeared, to a chorus of “I told you so”s from former FLDS members, like his half brother Wallace Jeffs, who told the Salt Lake Tribune, “Blame the judge for this. Everybody knew that he was going to do this. Everybody.”
According to the New York Times, Jeffs is considered to be potentially armed and dangerous by the FBI. They think it’s possible he’s sought shelter in Mexico, Canada or South America, where the FLDS has compounds. Jeffs also owns a ranch in South America, his ex-wife told the court.
The food stamp fraud charges were, of course, part an effort by the feds to financially weaken a sect that has considered it acceptable in the past to marry off girls as young as 12. A federal trial in March also ruled that two FLDS-controlled towns discriminated against nonbelievers for housing, water and other essential services, which is very, very illegal. An FLDS company is also being held in contempt for using child labor in a 2012 pecan harvest (over a thousand children, the Department of Justice says), then failing to pay the associated fines when they were caught. Lyle and the church itself are among the people who have been ordered to pay some $2 million in fines. Of that amount, they have currently paid zero dollars.
Lyle Jeffs in his booking photo. Davis County Jail via AP