Lyle Jeffs wasn’t swept away in the Rapture, after all. But he may be living in the end times.
The fugitive former cult leader was arrested Wednesday night, a down and out guy living out of his truck, so desperate for money he risked coming out of hiding to sell his Leatherman pliers to a pawn shop for $37. The clerk jotted down his driver’s license name and number, Googled him, and found out that the nervous guy at the counter was wanted by the FBI.
“He’d been in a week before and tried to sell some stuff,” said Kevin Haug, owner of River City Tool and Pawn. “I remembered him because he looked disheveled and acted a little strange.” Jeffs was so fidgety, Haug figured he was “on something.”
After Haug tipped off the FBI, authorities found the 57-year-old former bishop of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints living out of his truck, alone, his eight spiritual wives and 60 children taken from him by his big brother, Warren.
Warren Jeffs is the self-described “prophet” of the FLDS who is serving a life sentence for his “marriages” to a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old. He was convicted in 2011.
After Warren’s imprisonment, Lyle Jeffs was chosen to be the acting leader of the FLDS. The sect is an extreme offshoot of the Mormon church that began splintering from the mainstream religion more than a century ago.
Lyle Jeffs did not rule for long. He was among 11 FLDS members indicted for child labor violations and food stamp extortion. He and the other defendants were arrested in February 2016 as part of a federal raid on FLDS offices and businesses.
As he awaited his trial, Jeffs was released to house arrest in Salt Lake County by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart, over the firm objections of prosecutors and the FBI. Once Jeffs was out, he slipped out of his leg shackles, reportedly by using olive oil. It was his public defender who connected his disappearance to the Rapture:
“As this Court is well aware, Mr. Jeffs is currently not available to inform his counsel whether or not he agrees to the Continuance. Whether his absence is based on absconding, as oft alleged by the Government in their filings, or whether he was taken and secreted against his will, or whether he experienced the miracle of rapture is unknown to counsel.”
“Warren is still running the FLDS show from prison, and he’s the one who told Lyle to jump bail,” says Sam Brower, a private detective and author of Prophet’s Prey, a book about his investigations into the FLDS. “Lyle was Warren’s guy on the ground doing his dirty work, and now he’s getting a taste of his own medicine.”
The stories of Lyle Jeffs’ cruelty are legendary among former FLDSers. Brenda Nicholson, who was forced out of the sect five years ago, says Jeffs “thought he was a god and ate steak and scallops” while all his people could afford were homemade bread and dry beans from their gardens. In March 2012, Lyle Jeffs told Nicholson and her husband they were unworthy and threw them out of the sect. Nicholson told The Daily Beast that Jeffs is “one of the most outwardly callous and cruel men I have known. He almost seemed to take delight in cutting people off and sending them away. I was in a meeting where he announced that unworthy parents could no longer keep their worthy children.” Jeffs wanted to split up the Nicholsons’ six children, but the couple managed to escape with all of them and now live life on the outside, Nicholson said.
But Jeffs is just now getting a taste of life on the inside. He is being held without bail in Minnehaha County jail in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, awaiting extradition to Utah.
Although he was arrested in South Dakota, where many of the FLDS have scattered in the last few years, his Ford F-150 had Utah plates and his Utah driver’s license was up to date.
The FBI says it is investigating where Jeffs has been this past year and who might have helped him hide.
While Brower said he believes Lyle Jeffs’ arrest may now turn the fallen bishop into a martyr in the eyes of the FLDS followers, like his brother Warren, he will face trial and may never get out of jail. Warren Jeffs still controls the sect from behind bars in Texas through weekly phone calls, visits, and letters. He dictates what his followers eat, when they have sex, and whether they are worthy enough to stay and wait for the Rapture.
Brenda Nicholson said she worries about her nieces and nephews who believe God will make the jail walls crumble to release the so-called Prophet. “It’s terrible to see that their lives have been stolen from them. They’re still waiting for Warren to be free and allow them to have families.”