Witnesses say polygamist leader wouldn’t flee in fraud case

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Family and friends of a polygamist sect leader accused of orchestrating a yearslong, multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud testified Monday that he would not flee if allowed out of jail because he cares too much about the people he leads.

Lyle Jeffs’ sister Mary Musser called him a nurturing, involved father who is admired as a spiritual leader in the polygamist community on the Utah-Arizona border. She and Edwin Barlow, a member of the town council in Hildale, Utah, chuckled and scoffed at prosecutors’ suggestions that Jeffs would use aliases, disguises, secret rooms, bunkers and weapons to elude authorities.

Those are some of the tactics his brother, imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, used during the mid-2000s when he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, authorities say. He was later caught and is serving a life term in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.

Lyle Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations for the group, whose leaders have been indicted on allegations of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits. They instructed followers to buy items and give them to a church warehouse or use food stamps in sect-owned stores without getting anything in return, prosecutors say.

It would be unprecedented to keep a defendant behind bars on this type of non-violent, white-collar fraud case, federal public defender Kathryn Nester said. She said Jeffs should be freed ahead of trial because he’s not dangerous and has deep family ties and connections to the community.

“To get it up and abandon it would be completely out of character,” Nester said. “He’s spent his whole life caring for these people.”

Prosecutors are asking a federal judge to keep Jeffs behind bars, arguing his past actions show he would be a risk to skip court hearings. Prosecutor Robert Lund said Jeffs has a long and detailed history of obstructing justice.

“Lyle Jeffs does not respect this court’s authority,” Lund said. “At a minimum, Lyle Jeffs believes there are higher authorities that he answers to other than this court.”

A judge is expected to make a decision later Monday at the hearing where Jeffs sat stoically and several community members, including two women in traditional prairie dresses, sat in the gallery.

Jeffs, one of 11 sect members indicted in the food stamp scheme, has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have released other suspects while the case plays out but are fighting to keep Jeffs and three other top leaders behind bars.

Defense attorneys guided witnesses to portray the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, as normal, welcoming, law-abiding community that has been hurt by government involvement over the last decade.

That includes the state of Utah taking over a trust with hundreds of homes, evicting some people who refuse to pay monthly fees, they said.

David Richard Barlow, a member of the group, said Lyle Jeffs “has always told us to tell the truth.”