Feb 26, 2016

Prosecutors: Jeffs a flight risk because FLDS has access to a system of secure hideouts

Mike Anderson
Rapid City Journal
February 25, 2016


Seth Jeffs
Seth Jeffs
Federal prosecutors, fearing that religious-sect leader Seth Jeffs will flee to avoid prosecution, are asking a judge to keep Jeffs behind bars until his trial on suspicion that he and others of his sect defrauded the federal food stamp program and laundered millions of dollars in illegally gained cash.

Jeffs, 42, appeared today in federal court in Rapid City, one day after his arrest near the compound he is alleged to lead near Pringle. He is a high-ranking member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a reputed polygamist sect that U.S. prosecutors allege has access to a vast system of closed-off and secure hideouts in South Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, western Canada, Mexico and South America.

The sect, referred to as FLDS, is a radical offshoot of the traditional Mormon church, which long ago disavowed polygamy.

“FLDS leaders,” the prosecution's motion to keep Jeffs behind bars reads, “have developed an elaborate system for moving and hiding members of the group in order to avoid law enforcement detection. The system includes a network of homes and apartments known as ‘houses of hiding’ as well as larger compounds known as “places of refuge.’”

The prosecution also stated in its motion that “FLDS leaders have used houses of hiding to conceal people against their will.”

There was no decision on the motion today. Federal Magistrate Judge Daneta Wollman set a 9 a.m. Monday hearing to decide if Jeffs should be detained until his trial.

The prosecution argues that Jeffs and his codefendants pose a significant flight risk as they might use the FLDS’s network of hideouts, along with an arsenal of disguises, fake IDs, and disposable cellphones, to disappear before their court dates.

Seth Jeffs and 10 other high-ranking FLDS members — all arrested on Tuesday, most near the Utah-Arizona border — are accused of one count of defrauding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and one count of laundering money. According to prosecutors, Jeffs and his co-defendants could face a maximum of 25 years in prison.

Heavy chains clinked as FBI agents unfastened them from Jeffs' wrists and ankles upon his arrival in courtroom No. 2 on the second floor of the federal building downtown. He had spent Tuesday night in the Pennington County Jail.

Jeffs, tall and thin, then sat in his chair, which emitted a prolonged wooden creak, and he remained silent and still for most of the hearing until Wollman asked him how old he is.

He leaned forward then and spoke into the microphone, “I’m 40 …,” he said, his voice trailing off as if he were trying to recall the exact number. Then he continued: “42 at this time. Almost 43.”

The charges against Jeffs and the others allege that from September 2011 to the present, they willfully have diverted and laundered more than $12 million in food-stamp funds to ineligible beneficiaries.

“The conspiracy takes money for food from people it was intended to sustain and converts it into funds used by their leaders to further illegal activities, including maintaining the system of houses of hiding and places of refuge,” the federal motion reads.

The risk that Jeffs and the others may flee if released from incarceration is high, prosecutors say, because the FLDS leaders have much practice in hiding and deceiving.

“People in the system use pre-paid cellular telephones to route calls through multiple devices so that individuals’ locations cannot be identified,” the federal motion reads. “The system also includes a secure Internet protocol phone system to provide confidential communications.”

During today's hearing U.S. prosecutors read Jeffs his rights, the charges leveled against him, and the penalties he could face if he is found guilty.

The FLDS’s system of hideouts, the prosecution alleges, was originally created to protect the group’s leader and Seth Jeffs’ brother Warren Jeffs from being found by law enforcement. Warren Jeffs has been imprisoned since 2007 on convictions on child sexual assault charges, leaving control of the day-to-day operations of FLDS to another brother, Lyle Jeffs.

“Warren Jeffs’ followers consider him to be a prophet who speaks for God on earth,” the federal motion reads, going on to say that FLDS followers are extremely loyal to both men because they “are afraid they will lose their families, their spouses, and their children” and that they will “lose their eternal salvation.”

Seth Jeffs serves as “bishop” of the FLDS compound near Pringle in Custer County. The federal motion states that when he was arrested, Seth Jeffs had large amounts of cash and photos of himself wearing disguises labeled “in hiding.”

Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler, in cooperation with FBI and DCI agents, arrested Seth Jeffs Tuesday on a highway near Custer as part of the coordinated sting against FLDS leaders at the Pringle compound and in Utah and Arizona.


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