Warren Jeffs polygamist followers arrested in Utah food stamp fraud

Several top leaders from Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border were arrested Tuesday on federal accusations of food stamp fraud and money laundering — marking one of the biggest blows to the group in years.

Prosecutors say 11 sect members charged for diverting funds from Utah's nutrition assistance program

Law enforcement officers conduct a search at the Wedgewood Development construction company in Hildale, Utah, Tuesday. Police searched businesses in the polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border, as 11 leaders of a polygamist sect were arrested for food stamp fraud. (Andrew Chatwin via Associated Press)

Several top leaders from Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect were arrested Tuesday on federal accusations of food stamp fraud and money laundering — marking one of the biggest blows to the group in years.

Prosecutors say the sect based on the Utah-Arizona border diverted funds from Utah's nutrition assistance program for inappropriate use by its leaders.

A total of 11 people were charged in the scheme, including Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs, top-ranking leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and brothers of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs.

Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting his 12- and 15-year-old child brides at a secretive church compound in that state.

Lyle Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations in the polygamous community of Hildale, while Seth Jeffs leads a branch of the group in South Dakota.

"This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud," U.S. Attorney John Huber said in a statement.

Warren Jeffs, seen here in a 2007 photo taken during his trial, was head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice for allegedly coercing the marriage and rape of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. (Douglas C. Pizac-Pool/Getty Images)

Federal, state and local police served search warrants and made arrests Tuesday in Hildale, Salt Lake City and Custer County, South Dakota.

Hildale resident Andrew Chatwin said officers went into five businesses Tuesday, including a dairy store, a produce store and a contractor.

"I'm watching them break in doors," Chatwin said.

The raids were the federal government's latest front in targeting church leaders. A civil rights trial against the twin polygamous towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona, is underway in Phoenix, in which prosecutors say they discriminated against non-believers by denying them housing, water services and police protection.

The communities deny the allegations.

Private investigator Sam Brower, who has spent years investigating the group, says the case targets a new hierarchy in the group.

"This is a huge blow," Brower said. "Combined with everything else, it's incredible."

Lyle Jeffs is expected to make his initial court appearance Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Salt Lake City.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.