One year and a lifetime ago, American society was vaguely stable and fundamentalist Mormon cult leader Lyle Jeffs was facing federal charges for food stamp fraud and money laundering. Jeffs disappeared while awaiting trial, with his court-appointed lawyer dryly suggesting that perhaps he’d been raptured into Heaven. On Thursday, the FBI revealed the disappointing truth that he was just hiding out in a truck.
Jeffs was the acting head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous cult based in Utah and Arizona. He got that job after his brother Warren Jeffs went to prison for life for “spiritually marrying” and raping teenage girls. In time, Lyle and nearly a dozen other FLDS leaders found themselves in federal hot water when they were accused of $12 million in money laundering and food stamp fraud. Jeffs was released from prison into home confinement and promptly disappeared; he may have used olive oil to slip out of his ankle bracelet.
When Jeffs didn’t make a reappearance, his lawyer, doing her sardonic best, suggested in court filings that maybe he had been kidnapped, or else gathered into the arms of his Savior:
Whether his absence is based on absconding, as oft alleged by the Government in their filings, or whether he was taken and secreted against his will, or whether he experienced the miracle of rapture is unknown to counsel.
That’s sadly not the case: the FBI announced that, acting on a tip, police discovered him at a marina in Yankton, South Dakota and that he was taken into custody on Wednesday. The feds say he’d been living out of his Ford pickup truck for at least two weeks.
The Associated Press reports that the feds were tipped off by a pawn shop employee, whose interest was piqued by a customer who came to his shop twice acting “nervous,” per the paper. The man reportedly sold the shop two pairs of Leatherman pliers for $37 and identified himself as “Jeffs Lyle Steed,” which is not a very good fake name. He also provided his (evidently real) ID, which was enough for the employee to look him up and realize he was wanted by the FBI.
His capture serves as a reminder that, when evading the law, it’s best not to act like a weirdo. Pawn shop owner Kevin Haug told the AP, “Every once in a while, when someone’s weird, we look into them for no apparent reason other than we’re just bored sometimes.”
When Jeffs first disappeared, one of his estranged brothers, his ex-wife and other former FLDS members told the court he might never be captured: he reportedly owned a ranch somewhere in South America and the FLDS has compounds in Mexico and Canada. But the feds said in August that a “rift” had developed between Lyle and Warren, who’s still believed to be acting as a powerful FLDS leader from behind bars. The church members withdrew their support from the possibly olive-oil-basted fugitive, leading him to a truck, a pawn shop, and capture.
The feds accuse Jeffs and the other FLDS leaders of ordering their followers to collect SNAP benefits and then turn them over to the church. Sometimes, they charge, the FLDS leadership had them turn in their SNAP benefits at church-run convenience stores without receiving any food in return. Rank-and-file FLDS members reportedly dealt with poverty and regular food shortages. Jeffs is being extradited back to Utah, where U.S. Attorney John Huber said he will also likely be indicted for evading prosecution. Rapture really would’ve been a wiser choice.