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Polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs has absconded from home confinement less than two weeks after a federal judge let him out of jail pending trial on accusations that he helped orchestrate a multimillion-dollar food-stamp-fraud scheme.
A judge issued an arrest warrant Sunday, the FBI said, for Jeffs, 56, a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who was on pretrial release.
Detective Sam Brower, who has ties to the FLDS, posted on his Facebook page that he had been asked by the FBI to alert people in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek, to watch for Jeffs and contact Brower if they have any insights regarding Jeffs' whereabouts.
On June 9, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart freed Jeffs from jail, but he told Jeffs to remain at home in Salt Lake City, more than 300 miles from his community on the Utah-Arizona border.
Jeffs was ordered to wear a GPS monitor and stay home, except for a few reasons such as work, doctor's appointments and court hearings. He was prohibited from talking with witnesses, co-defendants and his brother, imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs. The judge also ordered him to surrender his passport.
Word of Lyle Jeffs' flight angered many former FLDS members who didn't think he should have been released from jail in the first place.
"Blame the judge for this," said Wallace Jeffs, one of Lyle's half brothers. "Everybody knew that he was going to do this. Everybody."
Wallace Jeffs on Monday worried Lyle would never be captured, saying he likely has fled to Mexico or South America. Lyle Jeffs' ex-wife, Charlene Jeffs, has stated in a court filing that her ex-husband owned a ranch in South America.
But Matthew Jeffs, a 23-year-old son of the fugitive, believes his father will be captured, just as Warren Jeffs was. Running will prove to be a big mistake that will earn Lyle more incarceration, the son said.
"It's a matter of time," Matthew Jeffs said. "He's not going to be able to run forever."
At the June 9 hearing, Lyle Jeffs' attorney, Kathryn Nester, asked that her client be allowed to speak with his immediate family while out of jail, but Stewart denied the request after deciding it was too difficult to determine who would fit in that "family" category. It is not known how many wives and children Lyle Jeffs has, but top-ranking leaders commonly have more than a half-dozen wives and dozens of children.
During the hearing, which was attended by nearly 30 sect members, Stewart cited the fact that the other 10 food-stamp-case defendants already released had complied with conditions set by the court. There was no indication Monday that any of Lyle Jeffs' co-defendants had absconded.
Stewart also acknowledged that Jeffs' jail time would be longer than expected because the trial had been pushed back to October. Nester said Jeffs' constitutional rights would have been violated if he were jailed until trial.
Federal prosecutors argued that Jeffs should remain behind bars because witnesses would be scared to cooperate with government investigators out of fear that he would send them away on repentance missions or order other punishment. Prosecutor Tyler Murray said Jeffs already talked to dozens of people daily from jail about every aspect of their lives, including work and where they live.
"If he can wield that power in detention, the threat is much greater when he is out," Murray said during the hearing.
Federal prosecutors also argued that Lyle Jeffs had aided his older brother, FLDS President Warren Jeffs, when he ran from law enforcement a decade ago. Warren Jeffs eventually was placed on the FBI's list of 10 most-wanted fugitives. He was apprehended outside of Las Vegas in 2006.
In 2011, a Texas jury convicted Warren Jeffs, now 60, of sexual-assault charges related to his taking underage girls as brides. He is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years.
Stewart, who at two previous detention hearings had sided with prosecutors in denying Lyle Jeffs' request to be let out, said on June 9 that he didn't think the defendant would have any more influence while on home confinement than he did in jail.
Former FLDS members have testified in various legal proceedings that Warren Jeffs used prepaid cellphones and a network of homes across the country that the FLDS called "Houses of Hiding." Members also gave him cash and cars. It is unclear whether Lyle Jeffs who at the time of his arrest in February was the bishop of Short Creek and was running the day-to-day activities of the church has the same support that kept his brother on the lam for 2½ years.
But this time, a Jeffs family member is running with a considerable infrastructure already in place to pursue him. There is a federal and local law enforcement task force in southern Utah and northern Arizona that focuses on the FLDS. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of former Jeffs followers whom investigators can draw on to help find Lyle.
On Friday, Lyle Jeffs' attorney filed a motion asking the court to modify his release conditions by allowing him to:
• Work as an independent contractor providing estimates for his son's company
• Receive visits from a list of family members living at his Short Creek home, including his mother, none of whom is expected to testify as a government witness in the food-stamp-fraud case
• Receive prayer requests via letters from fellow church members; Jeffs' "religious practices require him to regularly pray for members of his community ...," the motion states
• Receive visits from family members and three maternal uncles to conduct religious services at his Salt Lake County home.
Lyle Jeffs and 10 others have pleaded not guilty to fraud and money-laundering charges alleging they diverted at least $12 million worth of federal benefits.
Prosecutors say sect leaders instructed followers to buy items with their food-stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse, where leaders decided how to distribute the products to followers.
They say food stamps were 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 for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say.
The FBI urged anyone with information on Lyle Jeffs' whereabouts to call the FBI Salt Lake City Field Office at 801-579-1400 or a local FBI office.