Mar 6, 2016

Here’s who investigates crimes in a polygamous sect

NATE CARLISLE
The Salt Lake Tribune
March 6, 2016

The groundbreaking food-stamp fraud case that penetrated a secretive polygamous sect was built, fittingly, by a secretive team of investigators.

And the 11 indictments issued so far may not be the end of it. The cops are still probing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The working group — as it is dubbed in FBI parlance — boasts agents from the Department of Justice, the IRS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with detectives from the Washington County sheriff's and attorney's offices, according to documents and interviews. The sheriff and prosecutor's office in Mohave County, Ariz., also contributed, as did attorney-general offices in Arizona and Utah.

The group, whose existence was not previously disclosed, was quietly assembled in Washington County by area detectives and federal agents — all laboring not far from the traditional FLDS outposts of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

News releases issued by the U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. Department of Justice after last month's arrests described a public corruption task force overseen by the FBI as being responsible for the fraud investigation.

But Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap and FBI agent Todd Palmer, in separate interviews, said the working group is actually a subset of that larger task force. Investigators formed the working group two to three years ago.

"They all started to notice they were working very similar violations," Palmer said, "but they didn't have the bodies to work them by themselves."

Palmer declined to say what those similar cases were, though Belnap said they were "the same kind of concerns that have been raised for a long time."

Observers and former members of the FLDS have long complained about alleged child sex abuse, child labor violations and money laundering. Investigators in the working group eventually zeroed in on the misuse of food stamps.

"It became apparent," Belnap said, "we could develop evidence what was pretty powerful through that investigation."

Unlike some of those other longstanding concerns surrounding the FLDS, the food-stamp case could be corroborated by government records showing who was issued benefits and where those benefits were used.

Still, the working group was informal.

"There's no set meeting schedule or anything like that," Palmer said.

Belnap said the participants shared information with one another by multiple means, including electronically, face to face and by telephone. Some of the documents released last week by the U.S. attorney for Utah were reports written by a Washington County sheriff's detective.

The detective, Palmer confirmed, was assigned to the public corruption task force. The FBI paid any overtime he worked on the task force.

"What started as a small investigation quickly grew to a point where it was important to work with federal agencies to build a case to present to a grand jury," Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said in a news release issued the day arrests were made.

The working group also relied on FBI agents assigned to a field office in St. George who have been developing an understanding of the FLDS.

Among other things, agents who worked on the food-stamp case also responded to Pocatello, Idaho, in 2014, when nine FLDS boys were found in a house there. The boys' caretaker pleaded to three counts of misdemeanor child abuse, for using physical punishment to discipline the boys, and spent 10 days in jail.

Palmer, who is a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the FBI, said the St. George office has four agents who cover the southwest quadrant of Utah. They investigate the FLDS and other cases over which the FBI has jurisdiction, he said.

Documents from the U.S. attorney's office also show the working group received assistance from an FBI intelligence analyst with expertise in cellphone and geo-location data collection.

The food-stamp case resulted in 11 people indicted, each with one count of conspiracy to commit fraud with the federal food-stamp program and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The charges carry the possibility of five and 20 years in prison, respectively.

Among the defendants are Lyle and Seth Jeffs, full brothers of imprisoned FLDS President Warren Jeffs, who is serving a sentence of up to life in prison plus 20 years in Texas for crimes related to marrying and sexually abusing underage girls.

Lyle Jeffs, 56, is the bishop of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., while Seth Jeffs, 42, leads the FLDS congregation near Pringle, S.D.

Another defendant is Kristal Dutson, 55, who with her husband, Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, 55, ran Vermillion Cliffs Produce. Federal prosecutors contend food-stamp debit cards were used at the store, but no food was provided. Government reimbursements instead were diverted to personal and church accounts.

Kristal Dutson's attorney, Aric Cramer, said the working group is targeting a religion.

"They're a convenient target and a favorite whipping boy of Utah politicians and law enforcement," Cramer said of the FLDS. "I really think this is driven by religious persecution rather than it is some altruistic sense of right and wrong."

The arrests were made Feb. 23. Also that morning, the working group served search warrants on the businesses suspected in the scheme and the FLDS storehouse.

Palmer said the working group is still investigating the FLDS and will continue to pursue the food-stamp case through the prosecutions.

Belnap said the working group will investigate every credible complaint.

"There may be some kind of assumption that nothing's going on because you don't hear about it," he said, "but work is going on continually."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com
Twitter: @natecarlisle

http://www.sltrib.com/home/3602468-155/heres-who-investigates-crimes-in-a

Post a Comment