SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A former polygamous sect leader was sentenced Wednesday to nearly five years in prison for his role in carrying out an elaborate food stamp fraud scheme and for escaping home confinement while awaiting trial.
The sentencing of Lyle Jeffs closes the book on a major government bust that took several years to investigate, culminating in February 2016 with fraud and money laundering charges against him and 10 other group members.
Lyle Jeffs was accused of being the ring-leader of a scheme that diverted some $11 million in food-stamp benefits to a communal storehouse and front companies over several years.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart said during a hearing in Salt Lake City that Lyle Jeffs deserved the 57-month prison sentence because his behavior showed he doesn't respect U.S. laws and puts his allegiance to his brother and the sect's imprisoned prophet, Warren Jeffs, above everything else.
Stewart said Lyle Jeffs' religious beliefs provide context for his decision to "blindly" follow his brother's orders, but don't justify the fact that he "cheated" taxpayers out of government funds.
"Mr. Jeffs is an adult. He knows right from wrong," Stewart said.
Lyle Jeffs is a lifelong member of the Mormon offshoot group based on the Utah-Arizona border known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS.
Lyle Jeffs 57, spoke briefly and said he accepted responsibility for his mistakes and that he erred in not properly researching food stamp fraud laws. He was ordered to pay $1 million in restitution. He had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit benefits fraud and failure to appear.
"I do your honor humbly and respectfully say that I acknowledge my mistakes and decision-making," said Lyle Jeffs, his hands and ankles shackled. "I do humbly accept my responsibly for my actions. I don't blame anyone."
The cases against the 10 other defendants ended in plea deals without prison time or with dismissed charges, but prosecutors made Lyle Jeffs their top priority from the outset.
They dug in even more against him after he became a fugitive in June 2016 after he slipped off an ankle monitoring device while out on supervised release. The FBI put up a $50,000 reward. He was caught in South Dakota a year later after pawn shop workers spotted him and called police.
Prosecutor Robert Lund said he hopes the sentence sends a strong message to Lyle Jeffs and other sect leaders that a "culture of corruption" in recent years won't be tolerated. He said Lyle Jeffs and other leaders lived and ate well while lower-level group members suffered, using businesses and special instructions to members to try and conceal the scheme.
"This case cries out for a message to that community," Lund said. "They must obey the law."
Lund added about Lyle Jeffs: "There is no training, no treatment for what ails the defendant."
The food stamp investigation was one of several government crackdowns on the group in recent years that has weakened the sect and created a leadership void in its home base in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.
The town governments and the police are being watched closely by court-appointed monitors after a jury found them guilty of civil rights violations. Government-ordered evictions of sect families from nearly 150 homes has forced many to seek refuge in trailers around the communities or in different cities across the West. Last month, the mayor's office and three council seats in Hildale that had always been controlled by FLDS members were taken over by former sect members.
Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.
Lyle Jeffs' attorney Kathryn Nester said the scheme wasn't malicious but meant to ensure everyone in the group had food to eat as part of the group's religious beliefs in communal living. She said her client was serving his faith just as he's done his entire life.
"His salvation was on the line like everybody else's," Nester said.
She said Lyle Jeffs has already suffered tremendously because he's been banned from the sect by Warren Jeffs. That means he's lost his family, his job and his faith.
"If you're looking to humble him, I think we're there," Nester said.
Nester tried to get a more lenient sentence by telling Judge Stewart that a "perfect storm" of factors led her client and the group to share the food stamps and that it won't ever happen again.
Stewart said he's not so sure based on letters sent in by Jeffs' friends who were trying to vouch for his character. He said several of them referred to the charges as religious persecution, leading him to believe they still don't understand the seriousness of the crime.
"That troubles me because it suggests it could happen again," Stewart said. "The deterrent effect has not been felt by some members of the community."