Feds Find a Way to Crack Warren Jeffs’s Polygamous Sect: Food Stamp Fraud

Federal investigators are going after the leaders of the polygamous FLDS church—whose ‘prophet’ sits in jail for child rape—over alleged misuse of food stamps and welfare benefits.

02.24.16 9:43 PM ET

For a polygamous religious sect whose child-rapist leader reportedly rules from a prison cell, the crime of food stamp fraud seems frankly banal—and yet, the misuse of such public welfare could very well be the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ undoing.

Eleven leaders and members of Warren Jeffs’s polygamous sect in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona—a community of roughly 6,000 known as Short Creek—have been charged with conspiracy to defraud the nutrition assistance program and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to a federal indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City that was unsealed Tuesday.

They face five years in prison for conspiracy and a potential 20 years for money laundering.

Federal investigators say the defendants—two of whom are Warren Jeffs’s brothers—created a rank within the church called the “United Order,” in which only the most devout among Short Creek’s fellowship (most of whom receive some form of government means-tested benefits) aspire to belong. Then leaders required those members to donate all their earthly belongings—including food stamps and welfare benefits—to a clearinghouse where it might be distributed to others in the community, including in part to the original donors who “shop” for food there.

Charged in the indictment are brothers Lyle Jeffs, 56—who has run the day-to-day and financials of the FLDS organization since his brother, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to life plus 20 years for the sexual assault of children—and Seth Jeffs, 42, who leads his own FLDS congregation in Custer County, South Dakota.

John Wayman, 56, Kimball Barlow, 51, Winford Barlow, 50, Rulon Barlow, 45, Ruth Barlow, 41, Preston Barlow, 41, Nephi Allred, Hyrum Dutson, 55, and Kristal Meldrum Dutson, 55, were also charged.

Lyle Jeffs and John Clifton Wayman pleaded not guilty on Wednesday.

Investigators have long focused on the sect’s sexual abuse of children, including the forced marriages of minors to adult men, and its practice of polygamy—which splintered Jeffs’s group off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the latter renounced the practice at the turn of the century. But more recently, federal and local law enforcement have focused on the other crimes allegedly perpetrated by the FLDS heads.

In 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and called upon the federal government to act upon the “welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics,” perpetrated by the FLDS, in effect calling it an organized crime syndicate.

The Department of Labor is suing the FLDS church for violating child labor laws, and the Department of Justice is at the tail end of a lawsuit charging church leaders with civil rights violations, stemming from the alleged discrimination by town officials—who are in effect just arms of the FLDS church—against non-church members in Colorado City and Hildale. For their part, the church has consistently maintained that the federal government is persecuting their community because of their religion. 

Seeming to answer that charge before the organization could lob it in the latest investigation, U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said in a statement provided by the Department of Justice, “This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud. This indictment charges a sophisticated group of individuals operating in the Hildale-Colorado City community who conspired to defraud a program intended to help low-income individuals and families purchase food.”

According to the indictment, from 2011 to 2013, FLDS leaders told their members who received food stamps to spend their stipends at one of two FLDS-run convenience stores: Meadowayne Dairy Store (known by non-FLDS shoppers for its raw-milk cheeses) and Vermillion Cliffs Produce. Members were instructed to drop off and donate the items they bought with their government-issued EBT card back to the storehouse, or swipe their cards without selecting any goods at all. Millions of dollars in funds from those transactions—sales at the tiny stores which surpassed numbers by Wal-Mart and Costco—were then transferred to companies acting as a front for the storehouse, according to investigators.

The indicted leaders then used those funds as they saw fit, according to the indictment. They allegedly distributed some of it to other members who were themselves ineligible for benefits and they paid for goods and services not covered by the SNAP program, including a tractor and a vehicle.

For outsiders who have studied the fundamentalist Mormon sect, the growing number of criminal charges for the group’s leaders vindicates what they’ve been saying all along.

“They’re not a church or a religion,” Sam Brower, a private investigator and author of the 2011 book Prophet’s Prey, told The Daily Beast. “They are an organized crime syndicate that poses as a church to hide their criminal activities.”

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“Churches don’t have every one of their leaders in prison,” he said.

As such, Brower hopes that the most recent charges will impact the FLDS church as they would any other criminal enterprise, chipping away at the most powerful among their ranks. But, he said, for those upon whom they prey—“the true believers”—the new arrests might have little effect.

“The ones who have been duped into believing their beliefs in Warren Jeffs are valid, they’re probably going to continue to look at it as some sort of test that God is requiring them to meet,” he said. “The true believers don’t have access to TV or the Internet and they’re going to keep doing what their grandparents did. The impact on them as a whole is going to be continuing what they are told to do.”

Though, he noted, there has been an exodus in recent years of FLDS members following the fall from grace of their prophet, Warren Jeffs.

“Let’s see if that continues.”

Exodus or no, at some point soon the group will run out of Jeffs to lead them. And in that way, the constant pressure from federal law enforcement offers the best chance for the victims still under the spell of church leaders who allegedly control and profit from the lives of their followers.

“That’s one of the great things about all these guys getting arrested,” Brower said. “Maybe it’ll make the prophet position look a little less desirable.

“Still,” he continued, “even after Warren went to jail, people stepped up. There’s always going to be people who are hungry for power.”