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In a hearing that dealt with polygamy and child sex abuse as much as alleged food stamp fraud, a federal judge Wednesday considered whether Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Bishop Lyle Jeffs should remain in jail until his trial.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart is expected to issue a ruling later Wednesday or perhaps later this week.
Prosecutors want Jeffs, 56, to remain in jail, where he has been held since indictments against 11 FLDS members were unsealed Feb. 23. Jeffs' lawyer, Kathryn Nester, asked Stewart to release her client to a home his family or supporters have in Provo and to be tracked by a GPS ankle monitor.
The hearing was supposed to be about whether Jeffs, if freed, would return to court for future proceedings, and whether he would tamper with witnesses or evidence. In the course of those discussions, the 90-minute hearing veered into whether Jeffs had married three underage girls and how much contact he has with his infamous older brother, FLDS President Warren Jeffs.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund contended Lyle Jeffs doesn't acknowledge court orders or the law. He presented Stewart with an excerpt from a revelation Warren Jeffs sent elected officials in February, saying he was wrongly being incarcerated at a prison in Palestine, Texas, and that laws should be overturned when they contradict religious beliefs. Lyle Jeffs, who at the time of his arrest was the bishop in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., signed the document.
Twenty-three FLDS members, including Lyle Jeffs' most-senior wife, Pauline Barlow, attended the hearing, sitting in the gallery behind the defense table.
But as Lund was about to discuss evidence seized in 2008 from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, Nester asked Stewart to pause the hearing so the FLDS members could exit the courtroom and bailiffs could escort Lyle Jeffs to a holding cell in another room. The FLDS are not supposed to view or hear evidence from Texas, where Warren Jeffs was convicted of sexually abusing two girls he married.
With the FLDS out of the courtroom, Lund showed Stewart evidence that Lyle Jeffs had allegedly married three underage girls in the 2000s and that Warren Jeffs' had sanctioned his brother having sex with at least one of the girls, age 16.
"Not only does the defendant practice polygamy," Lund said, "he practices polygamy with underage girls with whom he has sexual contact."
Nester countered that just because Warren Jeffs authorized something doesn't mean it happened. As for the marriages, she pointed to a Utah law allowing 16-year-olds to marry with a parent's consent.
"This is where we get in the sticky area of whether my client ought to be detained because of polygamy," Nester said.
Family members who have left the FLDS have said Lyle Jeffs has eight wives. His legal wife, Charlene Wall Jeffs, divorced him last year. Lyle Jeffs and the FLDS returned to the courtroom after about 10 minutes.
Lyle Jeffs is the last of 11 food stamp fraud defendants still in jail.
Attention on Wednesday's hearing increased over the weekend. Former FLDS child bride Elissa Wall gave an interview to the British newspaper The Guardian saying people remaining in the FLDS have been told an apocalypse was coming Wednesday. It was to include earthquakes, according to the article, that would split the walls of the courthouse and free Lyle Jeffs and crumble the walls of the prison in Palestine.
There were U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents standing post outside the courthouse Wednesday.
Prosecutors have described Lyle Jeffs as presiding over a scheme in which FLDS members donated their food stamp debit cards to the church or used the cards at FLDS-run businesses where the benefits were converted into cash.
A trial for all 11 food stamp scam defendants is scheduled for May 31.