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Imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs appears to be shaking up his polygamous sect's power structure again with the removal of his brother, Lyle Jeffs, as a high-ranking bishop.

Though some say his purported fall is a ruse to avoid a series of lawsuits, Warren Jeffs has abruptly tossed out top lieutenants in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints before.

"Lyle was getting very powerful with the people, and that scares Warren worse than anything," said Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother kicked out more than a year ago and who named Lyle Jeffs in a lawsuit seeking custody of his children.

Sam Brower, a private investigator who's spent seven years looking into the FLDS, said he has also verified Lyle Jeffs has been replaced as FLDS bishop for the sect's home base of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz.

"He was corrected from the pulpit," he said.

Lyle Jeffs is said to have announced the punishment more than a month ago.

Still, others don't believe it. Resident Isaac Wyler said there are still church security cars parked in front of Lyle Jeffs' house.

Willie Jessop, a former spokesman for the sect, said the leadership is spreading the removal tales to dodge his lawsuit accusing Lyle Jeffs and other church leaders of burglarizing his office as retribution for leaving the sect.

"It's totally a fraud. It plays right into the strategy of trying to deflect ... He's still the man behind the curtain pulling the strings for Warren," Jessop said.

There is also a history of FLDS leaders ignoring lawsuits from former members, and Warren Jeffs spent two years on the run from Utah criminal charges.

Lyle Jeffs' power in the group had increased since Warren Jeffs was extradited to Texas to face sexual assault of a child charges in late 2010. From a Texas jail cell, Warren Jeffs reclaimed his leadership role in the sect, kicking out former top leaders and dozens of other men. He has continued to direct the sect since being sentenced to life in a Texas prison last summer through leaders loyal to him, mostly notably his high-ranking brother.

Lyle Jeffs spearheaded efforts to conduct detailed interviews with every member of the sect to ensure they are following strict new rules, including no Internet and no sex with spouses, former members have said. He used the results to excommunicate dozens and bar more than 1,000 followers from the sect's meetinghouse at the beginning of the year. He is also said to be also responsible for creating a new United Order, which requires members to give their income and possessions to FLDS leaders, who give the people back only what's deemed necessary. It's a step that critics say binds people to the church and makes it harder to leave.

While Warren Jeffs relies on loyal lieutenants to carry his edicts down to the people, the lieutenants can also represent a threat to a man confined to prison.

"If he felt like Lyle was becoming too much of a threat to his influence with the people, he would definitely remove him,"said former FLDS member Dan Wayman. "Warren is so unpredictable that he's ruthless enough to do that to his own brother."

An FLDS attorney had no comment on Lyle Jeffs' status in the church. A call to another church elder was not returned.

Regardless of his true status in the church, if Lyle Jeffs has a lower profile, it could have an effect.

"I think people are going to start having questions now. Lyle was very visible to them, they just glommed onto him because they could see him," Wallace Jeffs said.

Some say the man reported to be running things, John Wayman, a longtime member of Jeffs' inner circle, has a softer touch.

"John is a real softie, [but] he'll do what he's told. He's very, very sensitive, as far as being politically correct," said Dan Wayman, who is his brother and used to be in business with him. "He'll do whatever he needs to do to stay in good graces."

The mood in the community, he said, seems to have lightened in recent weeks — but it may not last.

"Don't kid yourself for a minute that he's out of the way, trying to atone for his acts," said Jessop. "This is just to throw everyone off."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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