Polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs has fled home confinement in Salt Lake City, Utah, less than two weeks after he was let out of jail pending trial on charges in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
A warrant for Jeffs' arrest was issued Sunday afternoon after he took off sometime over the weekend, said U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch. Authorities aren't releasing details about how he escaped.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart released Jeffs from jail on June 9, after several previous requests were denied. Jeffs was ordered to wear a GPS monitor and stay in a Salt Lake County house, except for going to work, doctor appointments and court hearings. He was also required to give up his passport.
In granting Jeffs' release, Stewart said the other 10 defendants in the fraud case who have been let out of jail have complied with the court's conditions. Stewart also acknowledged that Jeffs' jail time would be longer than expected since his trial has been pushed back to October.
Prosecutors objected to his release, calling Jeffs a flight risk.
They also warned that witnesses would clam up out of fear of reprisal from Jeffs, who runs day-to-day operations in the community on the Utah-Arizona border.
He is the brother of the sect's highest leader, Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
Release initially denied
In April, Stewart sided with prosecutors in denying Lyle Jeffs' release. The judge wrote in that ruling that Jeffs couldn't be trusted to adhere to conditions of release because of his loyalty to his brother, plus a history of evading law enforcement by using aliases and concealing his whereabouts.
At the time he wrote that Lyle Jeffs travels with armed guards who are "willing to take extreme efforts to protect him."
Stewart didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
- Warren Jeffs followers arrested in food stamp fraud
- Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs convicted of child sex abuse
Jeffs' attorney, Kathryn Nester, was not immediately available for comment. She argued at the June 9 hearing that her client's constitutional rights would have been violated if he were kept in jail until the trial.
The FBI, which is leading the effort to find Jeffs, asked the public to report any information about the 56-year-old's whereabouts.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has researched the church for years, received a phone call from authorities Monday morning asking him to help get the word out and report any leads. Brower said he thinks Lyle Jeffs may still be in the region, and catchable.
Brower also said this proves prosecutors were right when they argued Lyle Jeffs was a flight risk.
"Why the court would ever think the guy in charge of this criminal organization would not run is beyond me," Brower said. "The world needs to stop thinking about them as a religious group."
Food stamp scam
Lyle Jeffs was arrested and indicted in February on charges of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits.
Prosecutors say sect leaders instructed followers to buy products with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse, where leaders decided how to distribute items to followers.
They say food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return. The money was then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands of dollars for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say.
All the defendants have pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges.
Members of the sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.